Catholics fear Hindu 'Taliban'

New Delhi, India - The Catholic Church has warned that electoral victory for the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party next month could result in a Hindu-style "Talibanisation" of India and lead to the suppression of human rights for all religious minorities there.

Father Babu Joseph, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, which represents 168 diocese, said the church feared the results of the current national elections, which are being held in five stages and conclude on May 13.

"They want to demolish secularism - they're very clear there has to be a Hindu nation and only Hinduism is acceptable," Father Joseph told The Australian. "Last time the BJP was in power, they began the process of amending the constitution of India to try and take away the rights of the minorities."

The constitution enshrines the rights of minority groups and religions to establish institutions for their communities.

But Father Joseph said: "If that's removed then tomorrow all our institutions, including our schools, could be taken over."

Communalism has been a constant theme in Indian elections as parties seek to woo voters along religious lines.

One of the most startling moments in an otherwise lacklustre campaign this election was a hate speech delivered by Varun Gandhi, great-grandson of India's founding prime minister and great secularist Jawarhalal Nehru. The young Gandhi was jailed for a fortnight after allegedly telling supporters he would cut off the hands of any Muslims who threatened Hindus.

In August and September last year, the Christian community was targeted in riots across the state of Orissa, triggered by the murder of a local hardline Hindu priest who preached radical Hindu exclusiveness among his followers.

Some 50,000 Christians - many of them converts from the socially backward Dalit caste - have been displaced in the violence, which claimed dozens of lives and saw thousands of Christian houses and churches burnt in villages across the state. Many have left the state but as many as 4000 Christians are still sheltering in refugee camps.

The riots occurred under the coalition state government of the BJP and former political ally the Biju Janata Dal.. But the BJD last month broke off its alliance and has since been trying to persuade people to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Father Joseph said a fraction of Christians displaced in the violence had returned to their villages to rebuild with the help of the Government and the church.

In some, reconciliation had also begun, as Hindus and Christians worked side by side in the reconstruction. But many others had been forcefully converted to Hinduism on their return.

"It's like what is happening in Pakistan - trying to apply sharia law. This is the Hindu version of it," he said, adding that Hindu nationalist parties such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were indoctrinating poor tribal people in Orissa against Christians.

"This is the worst we have seen so far but we wonder what is still to come depending on what kind of party comes into the centre," Father Joseph said.

However, BJP MP and national party spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, dismissed the church's concerns as "political propaganda", pointing to the success of BJP governments in Christian-dominated states such as Goa.

Mr Javadekar told The Australian yesterday that Indian minorities were safer under a BJP government than under the Congress party, which he said had been responsible in 1984 for inciting India's worst communal violence since independence following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.