NEW DELHI, India - Sounding like a stern father mortified by the misdeeds of his children, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the riot-torn state of Gujarat yesterday and called for an end to the continuing violence that has pitted Muslims against Hindus and left at least 815 people dead.
"People were burned to death just yesterday," he said angrily. "In our country the funeral pyre is used after death. But a person being burned alive is beyond my imagination. Have we forgotten our human qualities? Are we human beings? Have we become shameless?"
To most Indians, who pride themselves on the ideals of a secular democracy, the prime minister's words were most likely a welcome sermon after the worst religious violence in a decade.
But many people were also hoping for something else, a harsh rebuke - and possibly the dismissal - of the state's Hindu nationalist chief minister, Narendra Modi, who has been accused of turning a blind eye to the horrendous rampages against Muslims that took place during the first days of the violence.
At times, attacks against Muslims had the character of a carefully plotted pogrom. In a report this week, the National Human Rights Commission noted that groups with mobile phones and address books singled out "certain homes and properties for death and destruction in certain districts, sometimes within view of police stations and personnel."
But Vajpayee did not chastise Modi, who is a member of his Baratiya Janata Party. If the prime minister, a crafty politician, was willing to offer any criticism, it was done in a very oblique way.
"What is your message to Modi?" a reporter asked him.
"My one message to the chief minister is that he should follow the Raj Dharam," he answered, using the term for the ethics of governance. "These are very meaningful words. I am also following this. For a ruler, there shall be no discrimination for his subjects on the basis of birth, caste or religion."
Vajpayee's visit to Gujurat comes more than a month after the bloodletting began when Muslims firebombed a train filled with Hindu activists, killing 58.