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Off to Big Apple with riots balm

New Delhi, Sept. 9: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s New York itinerary will mostly involve discussions on cross-border terrorism and other international issues, but he will also address Indian Muslims to assure them that the Gujarat riots should be seen as an exception and not the rule.

Vajpayee, who left for New York today, will address a meeting of the Federation of American Muslims of Indian Origin on September 12.

“There will be a lot of questions on Gujarat and the fate of the Muslims in India,” said an aide, pointing out that the Prime Minister would face a lot of similar questions and would have to answer them during his address to the federation.

Indications are that Vajpayee would try explaining that the Gujarat killings were an aberration and the BJP government at the Centre was strongly rooted in the secular traditions of the country.

The Prime Minister might recall some of the steps taken in the wake of the Gujarat violence to ensure that they do not happen in the future, including punitive measures against those guilty of sparking the riots.

Though addressing Indian Muslims in the US might be unusual for the Prime Minister, Vajpayee in the recent past has tried to address concerns over the BJP’s possible departure from India’s secular tradition.

At the height of the anti-Christian attacks across the country in 1999, Vajpayee had decided to pay a visit to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope to reassure him that the unfortunate incidents were deviations and not part of the government’s policy.

Asked whether the Prime Minister would also respond to questions on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s Gaurav Yatra, sources close to Vajpayee said he might try and downplay it, saying these were issues concerning domestic politics that should not be interpreted as going against Muslim interests.

It remains to be seen how Vajpayee succeeds in convincing the Muslim community about his government’s real intentions in Gujarat and the safety and security of religious minorities under the BJP regime.

The BJP has been dubbed a “Hindu nationalist” party ever since it came to the centrestage of Indian politics in the 1990s.

The description stuck to it following the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The tag remained even though sections within the BJP were keen that its description be dropped as a hardline Hindu political party.

The attacks on Christians attracted extensive publicity in the western media and reports on the Gujarat riots have raised questions in Europe and the US on the Vajpayee regime’s secular credentials.

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