Indian minister blasted for 'stoking caste tensions'

The Dalit home set on fire on Tuesday in Faridabad while the family was inside. Two children died in the attack, and their mother remains in critical condition. The local authorities say the case is linked to an old feud between the family and member
The Dalit home set on fire on Tuesday in Faridabad while the family was inside. Two children died in the attack, and their mother remains in critical condition. The local authorities say the case is linked to an old feud between the family and members of another caste.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI • One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ministers was accused yesterday of stoking caste tensions in India, after two Dalit children were burnt alive in a case that has triggered street protests.

Junior Foreign Minister V.K. Singh, a former army general, sought to deflect criticism of the government over the sensitive case by saying that the administration could not be blamed for everything, even someone stoning a dog.

"On everything, say even a dog getting hit by a stone, you can't blame the government. That is not the way," he told reporters yesterday.

Opposition political parties seized on the comments, accusing him of likening India's lowest social caste of Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, to dogs.

A nine-month-old boy and his toddler sister were burnt alive in an arson attack on Tuesday in Faridabad district, 40km outside New Delhi. Their mother is in critical condition in hospital.

The authorities say caste violence was not the motive for the attack, but the area has been tense ever since. Dalits blocked a highway in protest on Wednesday, and the police have poured into the area.

Caste violence has long plagued India, where a rigid social hierarchy still holds sway, especially in rural areas.

Facing a mounting backlash, Mr Singh later yesterday rejected the criticism, saying his comments about dogs and the tragic deaths were unrelated.

"What I said was very clear that please do not blame the government for everything local that happens," he told India Today TV. "If by any stretch of imagination, (though) it was not intended... if someone has felt hurt because someone has maliciously twisted my sentences, then I have no qualms in apologising."

The opposition Congress party demanded his resignation, calling the comments shameful and immoral. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has accused the government of not doing enough to protect the poor and those of the lowest castes from prejudice and violence.

Three people were arrested over the attack, which saw the victims' home doused with petrol and set alight. The local authorities say the case is linked to a long-running feud between the victims' family and members of the higher Rajput caste. The feud claimed the lives of three people a year ago.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'Indian minister blasted for 'stoking caste tensions''. Print Edition | Subscribe