Berkeley, California, 27 Oct. (AKI) – A speech by Indian politician Jaswant Singh at the University of California, Berkeley, turned tense on Thursday as dozens of protesters stormed the hall where Singh, leader of the opposition in the Indian Parliament and a former minister, was due to speak. He was due to give a speech on the rise of India and China as Asian powers when nearly 50 dissenters, including local Sikhs and Muslims, surrounded him, shouting, "you cannot apologise for genocide". They were referring to the 2002 wave of religious violence in Gujarat, in north-west India, which left more than 1,000 dead, mostly Muslims.
Singh, a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was India's minister of external affairs under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when the riots in Gujarat occurred.
Organisers at Berkeley tried to disperse the protesters, which included community members as well as students, but failed. Activists managed to stall the event for over half an hour. They distributed leaflets among the increasingly impatient audience of about 100 people, many of whom reacted angrily at the interruption.
"This is a democracy, we have an invited guest so let him speak," shouted one student in the audience. A dissenter replied that having Singh deliver a speech was like leaving the floor open to a "Nazi criminal". As tensions mounted, the police were called in but they didn't immediately intervene.
Protesters, led by Randeep Singh, a philosophy student at UC Berkeley, were allowed to talk for a few minutes, on the condition that they would then let Singh give his lecture.
"I am honoured to be here despite the excitement of the beginning," a calm Jaswant Singh said as he took the stage.
After a brief speech on ties between India and China – two countries that are "poised for economic growth and cannot afford conflict" – the senior BJP leader insisted on taking some questions from the audience, but was told by security officials at the event that it was better for him to leave.
However Singh refused.
"This is an educational institution, I have never requested special security arrangements and I certainly will not now," he said.
About ten police officers eventually escorted the Indian leader out the back exit as activists waited for him at the main entrance of International House on UC Berkeley's campus, where the event was held.
The right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governs in Gujarat, has been heavily criticized for failing to come to the help of victims during the 2002 riots, the worst in India since the partition of the country in 1947.
Minorities, especially Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, accuse the party of planning to replace India's secular establishment with a Hindu theocracy.
Tensions between religious minorities and local officials remain high in Gujarat.
Last month, the BJP-led government passed controversial legislation that critics say will make conversions to Christianity and Islam more difficult.
The new law requires those who want to leave Hinduism to obtain certificates and affidavits from courts attesting that they are converting out of free will.
Such permissions, though, do not apply to Buddhism and Jainism, which are considered part of the Hindu faith under the new bill, despite being defined as separate religions in the Indian Constitution.
Officials say the new laws will protect low-caste, often illiterate Hindus from forced conversions. But according to critics, the BJP's aim is rather to maintain both the caste system and the party's traditional Hindu voter base intact.
Other five Indian BJP-led states, including Rajasthan and Orissa, have introduced or strengthened anti-conversion laws in recent months.