PANAJI, India, 14 April — An outburst by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee against Muslims marks a throwback to the hard-line jargon of his Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, belying the premier’s image as a moderate among hard-liners.
After suffering setbacks in four key state elections earlier this year and a virtual rout in New Delhi civic elections, the BJP appears to be going back to its old formula: Hindu revivalism.
In remarks to a party conclave here in the western beach state of Goa that shocked the media and much of the public, Vajpayee condemned what he suggested was a Muslim disposition toward intolerance. “Hindus stay in millions but never hurt others’ religious feelings. But wherever Muslims are, they do not want to stay peacefully,” Vajpayee said late Friday. “It is happening in Indonesia, Malaysia, everywhere. They (Muslims) stay by threatening and frightening others.”
But Vajpayee said his party was committed to India’s secular traditions. “We have always been secular. We don’t believe in religious violence or religious fundamentalism,” he said.
The remarks mark a sharp departure in tone for Vajpayee, who earlier this month said he was ashamed as he met Muslims who have been made refugees from communal clashes in the western state of Gujarat. He then urged the government of Gujarat, the largest state still run by the BJP, to treat its citizens without discrimination.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, accused by opposition parties and even some BJP partners of turning a blind eye to the mass killings of Muslims, Friday offered his resignation, but it was rejected by the BJP executive council.
Vajpayee Friday again condemned the violence in Gujarat, but put new emphasis on the torching by a Muslim mob on Feb. 27 of a train carrying Hindu activists, who were campaigning to build a temple over a razed mosque. Fifty-eight Hindus were killed in that attack, which sparked riots that left more than 750 people dead, most of them Muslims.
“We should not forget how it all began,” Vajpayee told his party. “Who started the fire?”
In an angry first reaction to Vajpayee’s comments, the All India Christian Council said the prime minister’s statement marked “the darkest day in the history of democracy and rule of law” in India.
“In cold-blooded cynicism, Vajpayee has in one fell swoop defamed world religions, ... condoned state terrorism, forgiven the Gujarat chief minister and sought to convert bigotry and hate campaigns ... into votes,” a statement from the independent organization said.
Terming Vajpayee a “violent protagonist of Hindutva (Hindu revivalism),” the council said the premier’s remarks have poured “salt and acid on the wounds of all victims of sectarian violence.”
The BJP conclave on Friday urged the Gujarat chief minister instead of resigning to seek a fresh mandate at the polls. Grassroot party workers meeting here said the strategy was simple.
“Gujarat today is burning with strong Hindutva passions. Make the best of it. Why not go to the electorate and get their clear mandate?” said a BJP legislative assembly member. “Why not relaunch the Hindutva wave from Gujarat, which is anyway claimed as the laboratory of Hindutva by the media and the opposition alike?”
Political observers believe the BJP’s hard-line thrust is also an indication that the party’s economic reforms have not gone down well. BJP President Jana Krishnamurthy openly blamed Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha’s low-interest rate policy for upsetting India’s middle class, the support base of the party. Krishnamurthy called for an adequate safety net to protect Indians, particularly retired people.
With the BJP’s liberal economic policies failing to win the votes, party workers said sentimental issues will come back upfront, including the Hindu domestic agenda and a hawkish stance toward archrival Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have deployed 800,000 troops to their common border since Dec. 13, when militants allegedly based in Pakistan attacked the parliament in New Delhi. Pakistan has since launched a crackdown on religious extremism, but Vajpayee’s government says it is waiting for concrete action, including an end to the infiltration of fighters into Indian-ruled Kashmir.
“I think sidelining the Hindutva agenda was a tactical error,” said the legislative assembly member.
“It may not be surprising, we may even have a war with Pakistan. You know the army has not moved back yet. So anything is possible,” he said.