Less than a fortnight ago Vajpayee had condemned the killings and the continued riots in Gujarat as a kalank (blot) on India’s face. But now he says: ‘Gujarat mein kya hua? Agar Sabarmati na hota to jo hua who nahi hota (What happened in Gujarat? If the attack on Sabarmati [train] had not taken place, then what followed [anti-Muslim violence] would not have happened). Mr Vajpayee did condemn the aftermath of the train attack at Godhra but hastened to add: Lekin aag lagai kisne? (But who started the fire?).
A statement by the Indian prime minister equating Islam with terrorism continues to cause an unprecedented uproar in the Indian political life, especially among Muslims and secular circles. Vajpayee has been accused of having finally cast off his 'moderate' mask which he has carefully donned all these years to present an acceptable face of the Hindu extremists whose political party, the BJP, he leads.
The whole world heard Vajpayee say it live on TV on April 12 in Goa: ‘Jahan Jahan Musalman hain ghul milkar nahi rahte hain (wherever there are Muslims they don’t want to live in peace)’.
And this was just the beginning. Vajpayee went ahead with Muslim-bashing and added, ‘Auron se ghulna milna nahi chahte. Shantipurna tarike se parchar karne ke bajaye atankwad se dara dhamka kar apne mat ka parchar karna chahte hain (They don’t want to mix with others. Instead, they want to preach and propagate their religion by creating fear and terror in the minds of others).
Vajpayee dwelt at length on 'Islamic fundamentalism' in the countries he visited recently. He said: 'one version of Islam taught love, peace and compassion' while 'Islam today was being used for militancy and Jihad and trying to bring the world under its influence. ‘Har jagah jahan Muslims bahut sankhya mein rahte hain, unki chinta hai ki kahin Islam ugra rup na le le (wherever Muslims live in large numbers, the rulers apprehend that Islam can take an aggressive turn)’ Vajpayee went on to say.
As if even this was not enough, the prime minister of a country, which has 131.5 million Muslim population, tried to squarely blame Muslims for the on-going riots in Gujarat. Less than a fortnight ago Vajpayee himself had condemned the killings and the continued riots in Gujarat as a kalank (blot) on India’s face. But now he says: ‘Gujarat mein kya hua? Agar Sabarmati na hota to jo hua who nahi hota (What happened in Gujarat? If the attack on Sabarmati [train] had not taken place, then what followed [anti-Muslim violence] would not have happened). Mr Vajpayee did condemn the aftermath of the train attack at Godhra but hastened to add: Lekin aag lagai kisne? (But who started the fire?). It is the same theory what the Gujarat chief minister Narendr Modi who is directly and indirectly involved in the massacres in the state has been advocating. Modi has all along been maintaining that the riots are a direct 'reaction' of what happened in Godhra.
After the outcry at all levels inside and outside Parliament, Vajpayee took recourse to the time-tested trick of claiming that the media has quoted him 'out of context'.
Vajpayee and his spin-doctors now claim that his remarks were being misrepresented: ‘It is projected as anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. A motivated propaganda, both within the country and internationally, is sought to be launched on the basis of such misrepresentation. My remarks taken in totality contained nothing that is either against Islam or Muslims’ Vajpayee said in a press statement.
Stating that in his speech in Goa he had drawn attention to two contradictory streams in Islam, Vajpayee added in his press statement, ‘I had said Islam has two forms. One is that which tolerates others, which teaches its adherents to follow the path of truth, which preaches compassion and sensitivity.’ ‘But these days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. It has raised the slogan of Jihad. It is dreaming of recasting the entire world in its mould’ he added.
Prime Minister’s anti-Muslim and anti-Christian tirade has attracted widespread condemnation. Asked about the controversial statement in a press conference, Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, said that Vajpayee has lost his 'mental balance.' Ghulam Nabi Azad, president of the Congress party in Jammu & Kashmir demanded that Vajpayee should be arrested under the anti-terrorism law (POTA) for trying to divide various communities of the country. Shahid Siddiqui, general secretary of the Samajwadi Party, said that Vajpayee's statement is tantamount to declaring war against Muslims.
GM Banatwala, member of Parliament and president of the Indian Union Muslim League, condemned PM’s remark and called them most deplorable. ‘His proactive Goa speech and the fascist attitude already endorsed by the BJP in Goa session are grave threats to democracy,' Banatwala said. All-India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat president, Syed Shahabuddin said that the extremist Hindu face of Vajpayee has been unmasked.
The All-India Christian Council (AICC) has also deplored Vajpayee's remarks. ‘In one swoop, he has defamed Islam and Christianity, condoned state terrorism, forgiven the Gujarat chief minister Narender Modi and sought to convert the bigotry and hate campaigns of the RSS and the VHP into votes for the BJP’ the AICC said. The council also said ‘to now rationalize and thereby encourage retaliatory violence in its wake is to savagely criminalise civilizational discourse in India.’
This was not the first time when the Prime Minister made cynical remarks. Vajpayee who has been called a 'moderate' in an extremist Hindu nationalist party, has a history of making such remarks. And he has always tried to explain away criticism by claiming that the media misquoted him.
It was just last year when Vajpayee tried to justify the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by his own partymen. Appearing in an Iftar Party hosted on December 6, 2000 by the lone Muslim member in his government, Syed Shahnawaz Husain, Vajpayee said: ‘Ayodhya mein Ram mandir ka nirman rashtriya bhavana ke prakatikaran ka kam tha, jo abhi tak pura nahi hua hai (construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya is an expression of national sentiment which is yet to be realized).’
Vajpayee also rejected the demand for the resignation of the three ministers in his government including LK Advani, the home minister, who have been charge-sheeted for their role in the demolition of the Babri Mosque. Vajpayee later claimed that he was misquoted.
During the Uttar Pradesh state legislative assembly elections last February Vajpayee had said that his party, the BJP, does not need Muslim votes. Earlier during Bill Clinton’s presidency when Vajpayee visited the US, he said that he is 'a sawayamsevak first and then Prime Minister' and that 'whether he remains Prime Minister or not he will remain a swayamsevak.’ Cadres of the extremist Hindu outfit Rashtriya Sawyamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent party of the BJP, are called 'swayamsevaks'. Later Vajpayee claimed that he intended to say that he was a servant of the nation!
Daily Hindustan Times has editorially advised Vajpayee: 'This can't go on. India cannot afford a prime minister who shoots his mouth off on sensitive issues and then issues tedious clarifications two days later.' An editorial in another important newspaper, The Times of India, said that 'A leopard, they say, cannot change its spots. But in India we have long been prepared to believe otherwise. A case in point is that of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee…Mr Vajpayee's unwarranted diatribe against a section of his own people will be difficult to reconcile with his image of being a moderate. It will come as a grave shock to a nation still coming to terms with the trauma of the past month and a half,' it said.