Will India's religious minorities gain from having Sikh prime minister?

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

NEW DELHI (AP) For the first time in the 57-year history of its democratic government, Hindu-majority India has a member of a minority religion Manmohan Singh, a Sikh as its prime minister.

That's more than trivia; it marks a potential turning point for India, a nation where massacres of thousands of people because of their religious faith have occurred under governments of not only the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, that ruled for the past six years, but under Singh's Congress Party as well.

Indeed, Singh's first pledge was to ensure there will be no more religious riots or mass killings. He promised ''to preserve, protect and promote social harmony and to enforce the law without fear or favor.''

His country's religious minorities want to believe Singh's elevation is a sign India has matured into the ''secular state'' envisioned by it's 1949 constitution. But they are cautious.

Singh was chosen by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, whose family is deeply distrusted by many Sikhs. Her mother-in-law and model former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered army tanks into the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in the northern town of Amritsar, in June 1984 to drive out Sikh militants that the Gandhi government had earlier encouraged.

On Oct. 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi's two Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in revenge, and Sonia cradled her dying mother-in-law's head. Congress Party leaders and members led a massacre of Sikh men, women and children in New Delhi and other towns, with as many as 10,000 killed.

Many Sikhs still recite with dread the comment Rajiv Gandhi Indira's son and Sonia's husband made about the massacres: ''When a great tree falls, the earth shakes.''

India's president at the time of the riots occupying a 350-room mansion in the center of New Delhi and a ceremonial, but revered post was a Sikh, Zail Singh.

''Sikhs were slaughtered in the capital of the federal republic, under the eyes of the government and there was damn all he could do about it,'' says Patwant Singh, a Sikh historian and author who drove with a few others through the maddened crowds to reach the presidential palace and appeal for help.

Patwant Singh believes Sonia Gandhi did not choose Manmohan Singh as prime minister because of his religion.

''She chose him because of his ability, and he will not be a political threat to her. It's not a sop to the Sikhs,'' he said.

Sonia Gandhi has never apologized for the Sikh massacres. But many Sikh leaders say what bothers them even more is that she chose two men accused of leading those riots to become Congress members of Parliament and selected one as a junior minister in the new Cabinet.

J.N. Dixit, a senior Congress leader who was named India's national security adviser, was quoted as saying in April that the anti-Sikh riots were ''only for three days'' and were ''provoked by some Sikhs who killed the then-prime minister.''

The justification for slaughter of members of a religious minority because of an act by a few members of that community was also made by senior leaders of the ousted Hindu nationalist government (roughly four out every five Indian citizens is Hindu).

As up to 2,000 Muslims were burned and hacked to death in the western state of Gujarat over three months in 2002, leaders of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's party said it was an ''understandable'' reaction to the burning of a train car carrying 60 Hindus allegedly by a Muslim crowd.

During the elections, Gandhi campaigned against mistreatment of Muslims and Christians burning of churches, killing of ministers during the five years the BJP was in power. Gandhi, who says she is not religious, claimed the election win as a victory for secularism.

Manmohan Singh's selection ''tells the minorities they should not lose faith in the system and the society as a whole when things are going against them,'' said Ayub Ali Khan, a Muslim and a former editor in southern Hyderabad. ''But at the same time the minorities will have to be on guard. The present alliance is based most on vested interests. One never knows in which direction these parties would go.''

One party in Singh's government was also in the ousted BJP coalition.

When the BJP came to prominence by leading the mob destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya in 1991, a Congress government was in charge. Yet Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao never ordered the army to stop the violence, which spread across the country, causing 1,000 deaths.

No leaders have been convicted of instigating the Ayodhya mob. No one has been convicted of killing Sikhs in 1984. The few trials against Hindus accused of murdering Muslims in Gujarat have ended in mass acquittals, though the Supreme Court has ordered two cases to be retried outside the state.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a February report to the U.S State Department that India should be added to a list of ''countries of particular concern for violations of religious freedoms.''

''So far as the minorities are concerned, Manmohan Singh becoming the prime minister of the country is symbolic. But in politics, symbols also are important,'' said Rahmat Jahan, 40, a Muslim mother of four who teachers English literature at a college in the eastern city of Gaya.

''He must have first-hand experience of what it means to be a member of the minority community,'' Jahan said. ''Muslims will be happy if communal violence ends and discrimination against the minorities is less pronounced.''

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