INDIA is courting the role of global outcaste twice in one year, first after the nuclear bomb and then with the attacks on a small minority - this is how the western media, especially in the US and the UK, condemn the recent spate of attacks on Indias Christian community.
The common refrain in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and even The Washington Post is that prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is powerless to say anything, because the outrageous attacks are being carried out by political allies of Vajpayee's bjp. And according to the US press, the real target of the attacks is Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Indian ambassador to the US Naresh Chandra is obviously not too pleased. He says the US reporting lacks perspective. The attacks, he has explained, were not of the magnitude being described by the press and the damage to property was minuscule compared to the damage done to some of the Black churches in the US that had been torched by arsonists. Speaking to Indian correspondents in Washington recently, he added that members of the Indian community in the US should first throw stones at my house before going to Kofi Annan. He was referring to the fact that members of the Indian community had protested at the UN. The deputy chief of mission, T.P. Srinivasan, met with a group of Indian Christians and told them not to allow themselves to be exploited by the US media and other biased groups.
The Clinton administration is so concerned that deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott is likely to rake up the issue in the next round of talks from Friday. In Delhi, India's external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, however, said it wouldn't come up for discussion. We can guess why it is happening, Talbott said. Earlier, the vhp and the Bajrang Dal were stirring up anti-Muslim hysteria to get votes. That died down, so now they stir up anti-Christian hysteria as a way of getting at the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi. He laughed off accusations that the attacks were part of an international conspiracy.
But the worst press has come from the British media. These are the worst attacks on India's Christian minority this century, the Daily Telegraph reported. The Times said the murder of the Australian missionary and his two sons was the 109th attack against Christians since the bjp government took over, compared to 50 in the past 50 years.
Gandhi's expectations of a tolerant India have been brutally betrayed, The Times screamed in an editorial. Asian Christians are under assault as they have not been in living memory, it wrote. In Pakistan, justice for Christians is virtually non-existent and the police identify Christian homes with crosses much as Nazi Germany instituted the yellow star for Jews. Such actions are often signs of weak governments but India has been relatively lightly touched by the Asian disease; there, the problem is a governing party that rose to power by cultivating a religious militancy whose destructiveness it is unable or unwilling to control.
The Guardian carried a report from Gujarat which spoke of Christian friction with believers in the monkey god and quoted villagers making fun of Hindus who had attempted to reconvert them (Christians) to Hinduism. The report portrays the Hindus there as ridiculous zealots.
The widespread media reports contradict the information given to foreign secretary Robin Cook by the PM's principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, a week ago that the media had blown up a small incident in one village in one district in one state. The Telegraph said throughout Gujarat, Christian chapels, schools and homes lie in ruins. It reported that Hindus have resorted to stoning Christian women and that many Christians have been sacked by Hindu employers and Christians have been told that diesel would be mixed in their drinking water if they did not reconvert to Hinduism. The newspaper blames two fundamentalist organisations of the Sangh.
Not so in France, which has maintained an astute silence. The issue was not even touched upon briefly during the recent visits of defence minister George Fernandes or Mishra. If we make any official statement now, it may prove counterproductive and at this juncture we do not wish to complicate matters, say senior French officials.
The French silence can perhaps be attributed to the importance they attach to their increasingly strengthening ties especially economic with India. France has also been repeatedly talking of India as one of the poles in a multipolar world that should emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new economic situation that is arising across the globe.
And of course, the French are keen to bag some substantial defence deals with India. Hence, they are understandably eager not to step on India's toes. Says a senior French official: We are, of course, concerned about any manifestation of religious or political extremism and have discussed this with our partners in the European Union. But we will rely on the Indian authorities to take the necessary action and we are convinced that the Indian government will be able to resolve this problem. India rarely figures in the French media. Even the visit of prime minister Vajpayee got but a paragraph in the leading newspapers of Paris. And the same holds true for the coverage of the attacks on Christians. Only when George Fernandes visited Paris earlier this month, an interview with Le Monde was dominated by questions on these incidents.
In contrast, the European Union is taking a serious view. Facing increasing pressure from member countries, especially the UK, the European Union could be pushed into holding a ministerial meeting to discuss the issue. The EU is extremely concerned about the situation and is watching it closely. There is mounting public opinion in the member states about these atrocities. But the EU respects India and would not like to take actions that could be seen as meddling in its internal affairs and undermining its secular and democratic framework, says a senior EU official. The Germans have already conveyed their concern to the Indian government through their ambassador in Delhi.
If London's response has been reactionary, the perception in Washington is that damage control in India has been quite pathetic. Quipped a Pakistani diplomat: We used to be the bad guys. Now it is India all the time. They need to learn better PR in Delhi.