India's premier decries Hindu attacks against Christians; Allies, opposition party say government reacts too slowly to violence


NEW DELHI, India -- In a somber address to the nation yesterday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made his strongest condemnation of the recent attacks on Christian places of worship in India and the killings of an Australian missionary and his two young sons as "a blot on our collective consciousness."

"Such violence violates our tradition and culture of tolerance," he said on the 51st anniversary of the assassination of India's pacifist leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi. "It goes against everything that Gandhiji and our savants have taught us."

But the prime minister's remarks, broadcast on the state-run television station, did nothing to quiet the opposition Congress Party and some of his allies, who say the government has moved too slowly to stop the sectarian violence and acted too quickly to exculpate Hindu militants who belong to groups associated with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that Vajpayee heads.

The party came in for heavy criticism yesterday even from one of its longtime leaders, Madan Lal Khurana, the tourism and parliamentary affairs minister, who resigned in part over the violence against Christians.

At a news conference, Khurana said he had been silenced when he tried to speak out within the party against Hindu militants who have been making irresponsible, anti-Christian statements.

Khurana said he was stunned when the missionary, Graham Staines, and his sons, 10 and 6, were burned alive in their van in the eastern state of Orissa as a mob chanting Hindu slogans circled them. He had written a letter to the party, leaked to newspapers, asking for permission to "atone" for the attacks.

Khurana's resignation complicated Vajpayee's efforts yesterday to reclaim the secular high ground. The prime minister fasted for religious harmony and vowed to see that those who had committed sectarian crimes would be punished. He noted that suspects had been arrested in the Gujarat attacks and that no efforts were being spared in searching for the Staines' killers.

The Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, speaking yesterday at an observance of the anniversary of Gandhi's death, accused the government of weakness and hesitation in enforcing the law to protect minorities.

"Instead of moving swiftly and decisively to end the violence and apprehend the perpetrators, homilies are given about national debates," she said.

Gandhi, an Italian-born Catholic and the inheritor of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was referring to remarks Vajpayee made earlier this month when he visited the district in the western state of Gujarat where more than two dozen attacks on Christians and their institutions have been reported to the police. The prime minister condemned the attacks, but he also called for a national debate on religious conversions.

Hindu militants have been accusing Christian missionaries of converting Hindus through bribes and intimidation and maintain that conversions should be outlawed.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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