India's Modi refuses to fire minister for attack on non-Hindus

NEW DELHI - India's new Hindu nationalist premier Narendra Modi on Thursday rejected angry calls to dismiss a government minister whose derogatory comment about religious minorities has caused uproar in parliament.

India's upper house has been paralysed by opposition protests since Niranjan Jyoti told a crowd at a campaign rally on Monday to decide whether they wanted a government run by "the children of (Hindu god) Ram or the children of bastards".

Jyoti, a junior minister in the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, has since apologised for the comment, seen as an attack on religious minorities in the majority-Hindu nation.

But opposition parties have continued to demand her dismissal, and on Thursday Modi sought to stem the political fallout by urging lawmakers to accept her apology.

"This minister is new, she has entered parliament for the first time (at the last election)... She has apologised," Modi said.

"I request the House to continue with its work in the interests of the country."

The BJP was accused during this year's general election campaign of trying to polarise votes along religious lines.

Hindus make up 80 per cent of India's 1.2-billion population while Muslims total 13.4 per cent, according to census figures. Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and other religions account for the rest.

Party president Amit Shah faces charges of inflaming religious tensions with a campaign speech he gave in the northern district of Muzaffarnagar, which was hit last year by deadly Hindu-Muslim riots.

Modi, who led his party to a landslide victory in national elections in May, was himself accused of failing to curb 2002 anti-Muslim riots that claimed at least 1,000 lives when he was chief minister of Gujarat state.

He has always rejected the accusations, and India's Supreme Court found no evidence to prosecute him.

Jyoti, minister for food processing industries, made her comment at a rally in New Delhi, where local elections will be held early next year.

A spokesman for the opposition Congress party, Meem Afzal, described her statements as "an abuse to democracy", according to the Press Trust of India (PTI).

"Though she has apologised, we know that such an apology is nothing. She should feel ashamed and resign," Afzal said.