India's Shame

Recent attacks on Christians in India seem to confirm concerns about the rise of Hindu nationalism as a political force in the subcontinent.

The sources of this tragic violence are somewhat murky. It has mostly sprung, according to reports, from extremist Hindu youth organizations. Such groups have ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the ruling coalition in New Delhi. But leading figures in that party, notably Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, have condemned the attacks. In particular, they've decried the killing of an Australian missionary and his two young sons in late January.

One Cabinet official, Madan Lal Khurana, tourism and parliamentary affairs minister, has resigned over the attacks. He said he wasn't able to get fellow BJP members to back his call for an end to anti-Christian rhetoric.

That's disturbing. So was Mr. Vajpayee's unfortunate comment, while visiting a rural region of western India plagued by the violence, that the country should have a debate on "conversion." That word is brandished by extremists who have attacked Christians. Yet Christians are only 2.3 percent of the 984 million Indians. Their missionary work, focused on health care and education, typically serves people of all religions.

What's driving attacks on Christians? The traditional target of militant Hindu nationalists has been Muslims, a significant part of the population. Targeting Christians suggests the scapegoating of a politically insignificant minority that can be demagogically portrayed as "foreign."

The larger victim is Indian democracy, which has managed to endure despite tensions within a diverse populace. Religious tolerance is a founding principle of that democracy - something that wiser individuals within the BJP, such as Vajpayee, must certainly recognize.

Official condemnation of bigotry, affirmation of freedom of conscience and worship, and pursuit of perpetrators must be unstinting.

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