Among the council of ministers who took oath of office along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi – for the second term in office at the centre for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government – at the lawns of the Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi on May 30, the one who stood out most prominently is first-time Member of Parliament Pratap Chandra Sarangi. The 64-year-old BJP activist, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Balasore parliamentary constituency in Odisha, has been lauded relentlessly and hailed for his simple living: he is a bachelor who lives in a thatched house and rides a bicycle.
However, what has been submerged under the din of the greatest round of applause that Sarangi received when he walked centerstage to be administered the oath of office by President Ramnath Kovind is his controversial political past.
Sarangi was pitched by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Balasore Lok Sabha constituency as the proverbial David in a fight between two Goliaths: the Congress candidate Navajyoti Pattnaik, son of Odisha Congress president Niranjan Pattnaik, with declared assets worth over Rs 104 crore and the incumbent Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP Rabindra Jena, who has assets worth around Rs 72 crore. Sarangi, a minion with declared assets of a little above Rs 16 lakh, won by a narrow margin that fell a little short of 13,000 votes.
Sarangi’s victory came notwithstanding the fact that he has seven criminal cases pending against him.
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Few would know that Sarangi was the Odisha state co-ordinator of the right-wing Hindu militant group, Bajrang Dal, at the time when Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive along with his two minor sons Philip and Timothy in Manoharpur village of Keonjhar district in Odisha in January 1999.
The Bajrang Dal had been investigated by the state police for its possible links with the triple murder that had hogged international headlines. The main accused in the case, Dara Singh, was a member of the fringe outfit Bajrang Dal, as per police records. The role of the Bajrang Dal in the dastardly murders was never conclusively established even though twelve years after the incident, the Supreme Court of India, in 2011, upheld a life imprisonment sentence issued upon Singh by the High Court of Odisha. As a fallout of the incident, the Bajrang Dal, as all other saffron groups, had distanced themselves from Singh.
Writer and activist Ram Puniyani writing about the Bajrang Dal vis-à-vis the Staines’ murder in his book The Politics of Anti-Christian Violence says:
“… there is no evidence that Bajrang Dal is involved in the present gruesome murder of Staines and his two little children. Moreover, in his statement, Pratap Chandra Sarangi, who is the state co-ordinator of Bajrang Dal in Orissa was categorical that re-conversion to Hinduism was not one of the objects of Bajrang Dal. In his affidavit he had stated that Bajrang Dal was not involved in gruesome murder and that Dara Singh was never a member of the Bajrang Dal.”
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However, Sarangi made no attempts whatsoever to conceal from the public his latent dislike for Christian missionaries in several interviews he gave to the media after the incident. In an interview to the news portal Rediff.com following the gruesome murders, Sarangi had said:
“Barring a few exceptions, Christian missionaries, to generalise, are idiots. Usually the Christian missionaries work as agents of American power. … And, I must tell you, when the missionaries say they are working for the downtrodden, it is all a myth. In fact, their agenda is to convert poor people to Christianity.”
Sarangi has, however, during his long political career made it clear that he is not opposed to religious conversion that is wilful and not done by force, inducement or fraud.
In the year 2002, Sarangi was in the news yet again for the infamous Odisha Assembly incident wherein hundreds of activists belonging to groups affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini had stormed inside the house breaking security protocols.
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The incident had taken place less than four months after the unprecedented attack upon Indian Parliament by Pakistani terrorists. On March 16, 2001, members of the saffron brigade, who were unhappy over the incarceration of VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore and certain “anti-VHP” remarks by certain sitting MLAs of Odisha, had pelted stones, vandalised office furniture and equipment, thrown flower pots and manhandled security guards and legislators after barging inside the Assembly armed with lathis and tridents.
Sarangi, who was then the Odisha state unit president of the Bajrang Dal, was one of the 67 persons arrested a day after the incident, including Odisha’s VHP president Bipin Behari Rath in a crackdown by the Naveen Pattnaik-led state government, for his alleged connivance in the crime. The state at that point of time was being ruled by a coalition of the BJD and BJP that finally fell apart, as the former political party backed off in the year 2009 in the backdrop of violence against Christians in the Kandhamal district of Odisha.