Friday, June 11, 2004

NEW DELHI — For the first time in the 57 years since the country’s independence, Hindu-majority India has a member of another religion — Manmohan Singh, a Sikh — as prime minister.

This marks a potential turning point for India, a nation where massacres of thousands over their religion have occurred under governments not only of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, that ruled for the past six years, but also Mr. Singh’s Congress party.

Mr. 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 that Mr. Singh’s elevation is a sign that India has matured into the “secular state” envisioned by its 1949 constitution. But they are cautious.

Mr. Singh was chosen by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, whose family is deeply distrusted by many Sikhs. Her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, ordered army tanks into Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in June 1984 to drive out Sikh militants whom her government earlier had encouraged.

On Oct. 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, and Sonia Gandhi cradled her dying mother-in-law’s head. Congress 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 [nothing] 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 that what bothers them even more is that she chose two men accused of leading the 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.”

As up to 2,000 Muslims were burned and hacked to death in the western state of Gujarat in three months in 2002, leaders of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP said it was an “understandable” reaction to the burning of a train car carrying 60 Hindus, an act blamed on a Muslim crowd.

During the elections, Sonia Gandhi campaigned against mistreatment of Muslims and Christians — burning of churches, killing of ministers — during the six years that the BJP was in power. Roughly four out every five Indian citizens is Hindu.

Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Christian who says she is not religious, deemed the election win 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 Hyderabad, the capital of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

“But at the same time the minorities will have to be on guard,” Mr. Khan said. “The present alliance is based most on vested interests. One never knows in which direction these parties would go.”

One party in Manmohan Singh’s government also was 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 had been in charge. Yet, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao never ordered the army to stop the violence, which spread nationwide, 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.

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