Wave of religious murders blamed on Hindu fanatics

FIVE KILLINGS in seven and a half months: hardly a bloodbath by local standards. But the murders of four Christians and a Muslim in a remote, densely forested region of Orissa state in eastern India have galvanised the country.

One reason for the outrage is the gruesome methods the killers employed. Father Arul Doss, 38, a Catholic priest from Tamil Nadu, was attacked by a 15-strong gang in a remote village at 2am last Thursday. They shot him dead with arrows, wounded his companion and burnt down the local church.

In a nearby town last month, another gang ransacked a Muslim-owned shop, seized the young shopkeeper, chopped off his hands and burnt him alive.

But the most horrific killings were the first ones. Graham Staines, an Australian mission-ary, and his two young sons were burnt alive in a four- wheel-drive on 23 January. Mr Staines had worked among Orissa's lepers for more than 20 years. The killing of Mr Staines and his children followed more than a year of violence against India's small Christian minority - some 23 million among a population of 1 billion. The sudden rise in the number of incidents coincided with the arrival in power of Hindu nationalism, in the form of a coalition government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is part of the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu fundamentalist family of organisations that shares common convictions about the need for Hindus to assert themselves politically and culturally. While many members of the Parivar, such as the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, are respectable, fanatical organisations shelter under the same umbrella.

Bajrang Dal is one of these. Its convener, Dr Surendra Jain, demanded a year ago that all foreign missionaries in India be thrown out. The chief suspect in the Staines murder, Dara Singh, is said to have worked for Bajrang Dal. Despite a massive police effort, he has eluded capture.

He is claimed to have emerged from hiding to lead the gang that killed the Muslim shopkeeper, Sheikh Raman, on 26 August. And, although no witnesses identified him among the killers of Father Doss, some argued that he was behind that murder, too. Again, the target was an obvious and isolated representative of a hated minority. Again, he was attacked by a gang of tribal people. And again, the murder took place on a Hindu festival day.

Because of the Sangh Parivar connection, and the "communal" character of the BJP, the Orissa murders were politicised. Four senior government ministers exculpated Bajrang Dal within days of the Staines murders, and the one-man commission of inquiry, which the government set up to investigate further, reached the same finding in its report last month.

But in a critique of that report, the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre asserts that this conclusion belies strong evidence collected and published by the commission that Dara Singh was, indeed, a Bajrang Dal member.

Ministers have also used the killings as a stick to beat Orissa's Congress state government, accusing it of incompetence in protecting the lives of minorities.

t The state of Jammu and Kashmir held a poll on Sunday, but hardly anybody came. In response to a call to boycott the general election by the All- Party Hurriyet Conference, the umbrella forum for Kashmiri organisations hostile to Indian rule, many polling booths in Srinagar recorded close to zero votes. "The government should read the writing on the wall and accept our right to self- determination," said Sayed Ali Shah Geelani, the Conference chairman.