- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2001

AHMEDABAD, India Tension between Hindus and Christians is interfering with relief efforts following India's devastating earthquake, according to a Roman Catholic priest who says he was driven away from a hospital when he arrived to help.

"Hindu hotheads are trying to dominate the rescue effort," said Father Cedric Prakash, the bespectacled, middle-aged director of the Saint Xavier's Social Service Society, a nongovernmental charity.

Father Prakash said he rushed to a hospital in Ahmedabad after Friday's catastrophic earthquake, hoping to help the overstretched staff cope with the flood of victims. Instead, the priest was shouted at by Hindu volunteers and pushed around until he left.

"In a situation like this, there should be space for all people to serve. But obviously, there is not," Father Prakash said.

Officials said yesterday that more than 6,000 bodies had been found since Friday's quake, which registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, and that the final toll would be much higher. Some estimates ranged as high as 16,000, and one official guessed it would reach 30,000 just in Bhuj, a city of 150,000 where half the homes were reduced to rubble.

In town after town, news agencies reported frantic scenes of people digging through rubble with everything from sophisticated equipment to their bare bands. In the town of Anjar, the Associated Press reported, a 3-year-old girl was chanting Arabic verses when rescuers pulled her out "totally unscathed."

Foreign aid has poured in from countries such as Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Turkey the site of its own devastating quake less than two years ago which sent 35 specialists yesterday to Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat state and the main staging ground for the quake relief effort.

On the streets of this city, which itself was badly shaken by the earthquake, the most visible volunteers are uniformly dressed in khaki shorts and white short-sleeved shirts, usually carrying sticks.

They are members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the National Volunteers Corps, a Hindu nationalist organization that supports India's ruling party and is hostile to other religious faiths.

In recent years, the group has been accused of burning churches and Bibles and beating Christian priests in the state. But since the earthquake, they have been directing traffic, cordoning off disaster areas, collecting relief funds, aiding the families of the bereaved and pulling survivors from the rubble.

"Long live the RSS," shouted one earthquake victim, as he was carried on a stretcher to the operating theater of a suburban hospital.

The son of another victim, Ajay Shah, whose 82-year old father was rescued from a toppled building, said: "We are so grateful to [the RSS]. Without them, my father would not be alive."

Father Prakash suggested the rescue effort was turning into a competition. "It looks to me like a situation of who is in the limelight, and who is not," he said.

A senior Indian official challenged that assessment.

"I do not believe that this is happening. This tragedy is not about religion, it's about humanity," said Arun Jaitley, the federal minister for information and broadcasting.

"If anyone wants to go in and do relief work, they are welcome. It's not the time or place to talk about these things," he said in an interview.

"The devastation is so widespread that you don't need the government's permission to do relief work. If it's the RSS, then it's very good, and if it's the Christian groups, then it's good too."

Officials said about 700 people have been killed by collapsing buildings in Ahmedabad, compared with the much higher numbers in Bhuj, 12 miles from the quake's epicenter. However, there are fewer RSS volunteers to be seen there.

"Those outlying areas in a 60-mile radius of the epicenter are dominated by Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, and we know the RSS doesn't much care for either of them," Father Prakash said.

One RSS volunteer helping a victim out of an ambulance rejected the criticism.

"We're just doing our job, and we will go wherever we are told to go," said Jayesh Acharia, a tax consultant.

Father Prakash's service society, together with 40 other nongovernmental organizations, is focusing its energies on the far-flung areas, convinced there is nowhere else for them to help.

He said the army should be given control over the entire relief effort to prevent political and religious rivalry interfering with saving lives.

"If you leave it to the government and the RSS, things will certainly go wrong," the priest said.

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