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World - Asia/Pacific

Indian prime minister fasts to protest attacks on Christians

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sprinkles flower petals over Mahatma Gandhi's tomb on the 51st anniversary of his death
The Gandhi anniversary this year is seen as a time to promote tolerance
Windows Media 28K 80K

January 30, 1999
Web posted at: 8:14 p.m. EST (0114 GMT)

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- On the anniversary of the assassination of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee used one of Gandhi's favorite tactics, a protest fast, to call for religious tolerance Saturday.

In a televised address to the nation, the Indian leader focused on recent attacks on Indian Christians, who make up less than 3 percent of the population. Those attacks have been blamed on fundamentalist Hindu groups linked to Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party.

"Such violence violates our tradition and culture of tolerance," he said. "Let no one be under any illusion. The laws of our land are clear, and they will be enforced, without exception and to the fullest degree, to punish those who violate this sacred guarantee."

Since Christmas, Christian chapels have been burned in the western state of Gujarat, and an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two sons were burned to death in eastern Orissa state last weekend.

Vajpayee said his fast was also a protest against other sectarian violence, including recent attacks on low castes by higher Hindu castes in the eastern state of Bihar.

Gandhi, who used hunger strikes to protest against British colonial rule and Hindu-Muslim violence, was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic on January 30, 1948, five months after India won independence from Britain.

Cabinet minister leaves over anti-Christian violence

Vajpayee has been lashed by both his allies and opponents over his handling of the religious attacks.

In a speech Saturday, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) charged that Indian values have been threatened since parties "inimical to secularism" came to power -- a direct reference to the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

"There has not only been negligence in enforcing the law, there has been collusion and sympathy with the dark forces," Gandhi said, according to a report by the Press Trust of India. "It is no accident that minorities in general have been targeted. This is so ever since the government showed itself to be weak and hesitant in enforcing the law."

On Saturday, one of Vajpayee's Cabinet ministers who has been critical of the government's handling of the violence, Madan Lal Khurana, resigned. Lashing out at the right wing of Vajpayee's ruling coalition, he said the murders of Staines and his sons "shook" him.

"It was inhuman," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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