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Unwittingly stirring up a controversy brimming with passion

Sometimes, writing a column is like bumping into a wasps nest. You have no idea what you'll stir up.

Such was the case Wednesday, when I told the plight of a man facing deportation to his native India, where he fears he will be arrested and killed by police. Paramvir Singh Chattwal, who is of the Sikh faith, is convinced that he will fall victim to a long-running government campaign against the Sikh minority in India.

I quoted him saying that, and the e-mails came hot and heavy, from Indian immigrants who believed I had maligned their native country and misstated conditions there. What planet was I living on, they wanted to know.

"The story frankly outraged many of us," said Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida.

Narayanan said I unfairly portrayed India "as a country with no human rights."

Some assumed Chattwal was a criminal making up a story, seeking political asylum in a desperate attempt to avoid India's poverty.

A University of South Florida graduate student, Parshuram B. Zantye, of Tampa chimed in.

"The charges leveled by Mr. Chattwal are nothing short of preposterous," Zantye said. "The methods of torture mentioned by Chattwal" _ electric shock, beatings and burnings, at the hands of police _ "seem to be figments of his imagination."

Some history will help here for Americans who know little, if anything, about modern India. The Sikhs are a religious minority there; Hindus, the majority. Since the formation of the Indian state 57 years ago, some Sikhs have pressed for political autonomy.

Their campaign led to violence in the '70s and '80s, and to the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Then, according to observers such as Amnesty International, the Indian government began a campaign to rid the country of Sikh militants and other young Sikh men. Thousands were killed or imprisoned. Chattwal maintains he witnessed some of the violence. He worries he'll suffer for what he knows.

The anti-Sikh campaign largely ended in the mid '90s, and since then, conditions for Sikhs have improved, according to Amnesty International. Nevertheless, police and other officials involved in the violence of the past were never brought to justice. A Sikh recently became prime minister and promised to stop the bloodshed.

In the column I said that the campaign against the Sikhs was led by the Hindu majority. Dr. Indraneel Bhattacharyya, an assistant professor of oral pathology at UF, disagreed. "There is no conspiracy or insidious desire of the greater Hindu majority to oust Sikhs from the country," he said.

He acknowledged the bloodshed of the '80s but added, "That was years ago, and since then our Sikh brethren have been given the utmost respect and friendship."

As I went through the e-mails, I felt as if I were being pulled by one side or another in an intractable political debate. It was like listening to Cuban-Americans who want to strangle Castro with an embargo vs. those who want the country opened up. In terms of passion, that may be the definitive political argument. The India argument resonates with similar passion.

On one side were those who thought Chattwal was a fraud. Some suggested he might be a criminal wanted by the police in India.

On the other side were men like Manjit Singh, a Sikh leader in Washington, D.C. He said the history of oppression against the Sikhs was "absolutely correct," although like others I heard from, he said the campaign was driven by politics, not religion.

Singh also had an explanation for readers' anger. Anyone proud of a nation can understand. "It's all coming out of an emotional need to defend the reputation of India," Singh said. "At an emotional level you cannot have a rational discussion with anybody."

No, I guess you can't.

I was blamed this week for lacking an understanding of Indian affairs.

But this episode illustrates how deeply and passionately issues can divide people within a country. It is a window on how elusive that thing called peace can be.

You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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