WikiLeaks cables roil India's political landscape

NEW DELHI — Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables have sparked a political battle in India, putting the ruling party on the defensive with their disclosures on alleged human rights violations and religious extremism.

Most damaging to the Congress Party was a cable reporting that Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's first political family and pegged by many as the nation's next prime minister, told the U.S. ambassador last year that hard-line Hindu groups in India could be a bigger threat to the country than Pakistan-based Islamic militants.

Given the deep distrust felt here among many for Pakistan and the domestic attacks in recent years by Muslim and Hindu extremists alike, the party's adversaries seized upon the comments released by the WikiLeaks website.

"I have been wondering for a long time now (how) the whole world believes that Pakistan is a terrorist state, yet the U.S. always backs the country," Narendra Modi, a controversial leader with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said Saturday, calling Gandhi's comments "irresponsible."

"Yesterday, after the cables were out, it (became) clear who gave inspiration to the U.S. to speak pro-Pakistan," said Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state, who was accused of tacit support for anti-Muslim riots there in 2002.

The disclosures are also likely to further undercut the reputation of the 125-year-old Congress Party, which has been hit by a series of corruption and influence-peddling scandals, leading to charges that its leadership is adrift.

A second disclosure in the cables excerpted in Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on a 2005 briefing by the International Committee of the Red Cross to then-U.S. Ambassador David Mulford about the use of torture in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Torture is illegal in India.

The briefing, reportedly based on 177 visits by the Red Cross to detention centers in Kashmir between 2002 and 2004 involving 1,500 prisoner interviews, cited beatings, electrocution, sexual assaults on prisoners, crushing muscles and other abuses.

Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, is a flash point between the two nations and has been the cause of two of the wary nuclear neighbors' three wars since partition in 1947.

In the briefing, the Red Cross reportedly voiced its concern that the Indian government had not tried to halt ongoing "ill treatment" of detainees in Kashmir.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the top elected official in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, said last week that the government has a zero-tolerance policy toward torture, adding that the alleged violations occurred before he was elected.

Others said the leaks underscored the need for a new approach in the troubled Kashmir region.

"The leaks have vindicated our stand about the systematic torture prevalent in the jails in Kashmir," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the moderate Hurriyat umbrella group in Jammu and Kashmir, told reporters. "It was unfortunate that the United States of America had been maintaining an intentional silence on the human rights situation in Kashmir while it spoke about the rights violations in Burma and other countries."

But the 2005 cable also mentioned that the situation in Kashmir was much better than it had been in the 1990s, at the height of a conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 civilians over the last two decades, including 100 fatalities since June.

(Anshul Rana in the Los Angeles Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.)