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Government about-face over Gujarat violence

Thousands of Muslims rallied in New Delhi on Tuesday, protesting the killing of innocent people in Gujarat
Thousands of Muslims rallied in New Delhi on Tuesday, protesting the killing of innocent people in Gujarat  

Staff and wires

NEW DELHI, India -- Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's troubled government has done an about-face, joining the opposition in condemning recent religious violence during a debate over a censure motion in parliament's upper house.

The move comes as a leading human rights watchdog accused officials in the western state of Gujarat of involvement in the murder of hundreds of Muslims killed during recent Hindu-Muslim clashes.

The still-smouldering violence reached its peak in March and has so far left more than 900 dead.

A day after Vajpayee's coalition defeated a lower house censure motion over its failure to halt the bloodshed, his comrades in the upper house called for the motion there to be given unanimous support.

"We have never said we are absolved of our responsibility," External Affairs (foreign) Minister Jaswant Singh told the upper house on Thursday.

"The government shares the anguish expressed in the motion," Singh said, adding "we should pass the motion unanimously and work together to meet the challenges."

Mistakes made

Parties hold May Day rallies against a backdrop of Hindu-Muslim violence that has left 100,000 homeless. CNN's Suhasini Haidar reports.

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Read the report by New York-based Human Rights Watch  into Gujarat violence

Unlike the powerful lower house where Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition holds the majority, the government faced certain defeat in the upper house as it doesn't have the numbers to defeat the motion.

Because the 19-member coalition joined the motion, it was not immediately clear whether a vote would be taken.

Although it survived the censure motion in the lower house, observers say Tuesday's bitter debate left the ruling coalition bruised and battered, with mounting criticism of the government unlikely to be silenced.

Three party allies abstained from voting on the motion expressing "grave concern over the failure of the administration in ensuring the security" of Muslims in Gujarat.

For his part, Vajpayee admitted the government misjudged the situation and said his government should have tried harder to halt the violence.

Uneasy calm

Fears of more violence in Gujarat were raised after the motion failed to win enough support in the lower house on Tuesday.

An uneasy calm has fallen over in the city of Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat and scene to some of the worst recent violence.

There, Hindu-Muslim clashes have waned in recent weeks but sporadic violence has continued.

Despite a heavy security presence many people say they are too scared to return home with an estimated 100,000 Muslims still living in around 90 relief camps.

More than 900 people are thought to have been killed in the violence that broke out after a Muslim mob firebombed a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in late February, killing 59.

Human rights groups and Western diplomats say the death toll may be closer to 2,000.

'Attacks planned'

On Tuesday, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch issued a damning report saying it had uncovered evidence Gujarat state officials were directly complicit in the violence and murder of hundreds of Muslims.

"What happened in Gujarat was not a spontaneous uprising, it was a carefully orchestrated attack against Muslims," said Smita Narula, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

"The attacks were planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials."

The group's report pointed to what it says are several instances where police officers led the victims directly into the hands of their killers.

Despite desperate calls for help, several witnesses reported being told by police: "We have no orders to save you."

Human Rights Watch named several Hindu nationalist organizations, including Prime Minister Vajpayee's own BJP, which it said were directly involved in organizing the attacks on Muslims.

It added that in recent days the Gujarat state administration has engaged in a massive cover-up of its own role in the violence.




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