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Prime Minister Promises Action Against Violence, Church Leaders Skeptical

By P.V. Thomas
10/15/08 NEW DELHI (UCAN) — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised action to check anti-Christian violence to protect the nation’s secular system, but Church leaders see only political platitudes in such statements from government leaders.

“What we are confronting today is a problem of dangerous propositions, and we need to act together, now and in future,” Singh told the Oct. 13 meeting of the National Integration Council.

The council comprising state chief ministers, leaders of political parties, members of the intelligentsia, social activists and Church leaders convened against the backdrop of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state, eastern India, and Karnataka state in the south. The last NIC meeting took place three years ago.

Singh said the council agreed “on the imperative necessity to preserve and protect the secular fabric of India’s composite society and the interests of all our people, particularly the minorities and the disadvantaged.”

He said the federal government would “not be found wanting in the fulfillment of its constitutional obligations of protecting” religious minorities. He also asked state governments “to act decisively and firmly” when communal strife, ethnic violence and terror disturb peace and harmony.

Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, lay leader John Dayal and Reverend Valson Thampu of the Church of North India were the Christian leaders among the 146 council members who attended the meeting.

“Every one at the meeting was concerned about the unity and integrity of India,” Archbishop Concessao said when UCA News spoke with him afterward. He acknowledged the violent incidents against Christians as “sad and shocking” but expressed “full faith” in India’s secular constitution.

However, the three Christian leaders issued a joint statement saying they “were sad to see that beyond platitudes and political polemics” the federal and state governments “gave little indication of the political will” needed to restore religious minorities’ confidence.

They were “particularly distressed to see no assurance forthcoming” as to when the more than 50,000 displaced Christians in Orissa can return home “without being forced at gunpoint” to become Hindus.

Seven weeks of violence that Hindu radicals launched against Christians in Orissa on Aug. 24 claimed at least 52 lives. Thousands of homes were burned down, driving thousands to the forests and government-run relief camps.

“For us, peace would be when the last refugee is back in his home, secure in his faith, with a livelihood restored, his children’s future secured as it should be in a secular India,” the Christian leaders said in their statement.

They also demanded urgent steps from federal and state governments to end hate crimes by enforcing laws and bringing the criminals to justice, while also providing relief and rehabilitation to their victims.

The chief ministers of Orissa and Karnataka were present at the meeting. They, along with leaders of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP-Indian people’s party), reportedly defended the Orissa and Karnataka governments.

However, Singh’s speech, which was released to media, said the NIC was “unanimous in the condemnation” of the recent acts of communal strife and discord in some parts of India. He did not name any state.

The prime minister also expressed “great satisfaction that there is across the board consensus on the need to contain communal discord and violence, protect minority rights and uphold our cherished ideals of nationalism, secularism, inclusiveness and nonviolence.”

However, BJP leaders criticized federal warnings to dismiss the governments in the affected states and a proposal to ban some radical Hindu groups accused of fomenting violence. They alleged the federal government singled out their governments and Hindu groups due to political reasons. The BJP opposition led to the NIC not endorsing the ban, some participants said.

Briefing media after the meet, federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the NIC passed a resolution expressing concern over the recent violence. Such incidents included bomb explosions in several Indian cities during the past month, blamed on Islamic terrorists.

The federal government set up the NIC in 1961, after a sectarian riot that year, as a mechanism to help end conflicts related to religion, caste, language and region. It was dormant until 1992, when it was reconstituted. The government nominates members to this body, which has no constitutional powers but can play a positive role during times of strife.