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05/15/2013

Indian prosecutor drops case against Varun Gandhi after anti-Muslim speeches

Feroze Varun Gandhi, an estranged member of India's famous Nehru-Gandhi family, was jailed in the months before India's 2009 national election for making anti-Muslim speeches.

At one political rally, Gandhi told a throng of onlookers, “These people have scary names like Kareemullah and Mazaharulla. You will be scared if you run into them in the night. But if anyone raises a finger against Hindus or if someone thinks Hindus are weak, I swear on the Gita that I will cut that hand.”

Gandhi purportedly compared one of his political rivals to Osama bin Laden. Later confronted with the video tape, he denied making the comments. "That is not my voice. Those are not my words," Gandhi at the time told Times Now, a news channel in New Delhi.

Yet his comments stoked furious debate in India, which trumpets its standing as the world's largest democracy yet also has a history of religious-based violence. The magazine India Today called Gandhi a "messiah of hate."

After a 20-day detainment and two criminal charges of making hate speech, Gandhi was released on bail and won a seat in India's parliament. His victory came even though election officials found the video evidence of Gandhi's venomous comments to be authentic.

Four years on, India is again on the hot seat after a new, damning report by investigative magazine Tehelka claims that Gandhi, now 33, has been exonerated of all charges.

Of the 88 witnesses who were scheduled to testify against Gandhi, all have recanted.

"This is probably unprecedented in the history of a criminal case," Tehelka writes.

The magazine charges that witnesses were threatened and bribed by the police; testimonies were taken without a judge in court; crucial witnesses, including the forensic expert, were not summoned by the public prosecutor; many were not even questioned.

Tehelka reporters Rahul Kotiyal and Atul Chaurasia say they have many witnesses admitting all of this on camera.

Gandhi's comments received intense scrutiny largely because he is a great-grandson of India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, although Varun Gandhi has been estranged from India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty for the majority of his life.

While his cousin Rahul Gandhi is seen by some as a future prime minister of India for the Congress Party, Varun Gandhi is the most visible young politician for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has a vocal and influential Hindu nationalist following.

Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and the base of the Gandhi family's power, said Tuesday it would challenge Varun Gandhi's acquittal.

If there is good news to be found in the Gandhi scandal, it is that India's national media continues to come of age.

In 1990, India had just a single television channel. But today, there are hundreds of all-news cable channels and a flourishing newspaper and magazine industry, which thrives on reporting stories on government corruption and self-dealing.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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