UN plea over Indian burnings

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AMID A darkening national mood of gloom and apprehension after the burning to death of an Australian missionary and his children three weeks ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, met the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, yesterday and voiced the international community's dismay about this and other anti- Christian attacks.

Mrs Robinson's trip to India to take part in a regional human rights workshop was planned months ago, but it assumed new significance after the murder of Graham Staines and his sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, in a remote village in Orissa, eastern India, on 23 January.

The Australian, who had spent more than 20 years working in leprosy hospitals in Orissa, was barricaded into his jeep with his sons by a chanting mob in the middle of the night, and the vehicle set alight.

No one has been charged with the murders but police suspicion settled on a Hindu nationalist fanatic called Dara Singh, who was linked to a series of attacks on Muslims.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government threw itself into damage limitation, dispatching a ministerial team to the site of the murders.d It reported that organisations with links to the government were not involved. The report was met with scepticism because, whoever the true culprits, the horrifying crime took place in an atmosphere of anti-Christian hysteria deliberately whipped up by the BJP's Hindu nationalist allies. In the past, organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Shiv Sena have attacked India's biggest minority, the Muslims. The destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the communal massacres that followed are blamed squarely on the storm troops of Hindu nationalism.

Until last year Christians had never felt the brunt of such attacks. All that has changed. Since the election of the present government 11 months ago, India's Christians have faced an unprecedented onslaught, with dozens of churches destroyed or damaged. The murders in Orissa appeared to be the climax of an orchestrated campaign. As Mrs Robinson told the BBC on Monday, the attacks "have damaged India's reputation in the world for religious tolerance" - and as religious tolerance was a key issue of human rights, it was an issue she felt should be raised with the government.

The Orissa murders have proved to be a watershed in the government's relations with the intellectual community, prompting a spate of gloomily reflective articles on the state of the nation. Even cheerleaders of Hindu nationalism such as The Pioneer newspaper have joined in the breast-beating and hand-wringing. But horrifying though the killings were, there is something artificial and unreal about the strength of the reaction to them. Terrible things happen in India all the time; sharing the front page with the Orissa murders was the story of an unattended newborn baby dragged from a hospital by a dog and destroyed in the street.

Despite the condemnations, attacks on Christians have continued. In Gujarat, where Hindu nationalists are in power, a census of Christians is being carried out, which has raised the community's anxieties. Elsewhere the VHP has launched a campaign to "welcome back" to Hinduism tribal people formerly converted to Christianity, even though the tribespeople lack any status within Hinduism.

Anyone brought up to believe in the tolerant character of Hinduism may be baffled. Its true goal is almost certainly to marginalise Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of the Congress Party, stigmatising her as a member of an alien minority that is also weak. Hindu zealots have accused her of causing her late husband, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, to be converted to Catholicism.

But it is the poor and defenceless whose lives are being thrown into turmoil by the persecution. And it is India's reputation as, in Mary Robinson's words yesterday, "a country ... which from the very outset of the United Nations has championed the cause of free speech".