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Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK

World: South Asia

Rebels expelled from Congress

Sonia Gandhi's supporters are furious at the rebels

Three senior members of India's Congress Party, who forced the resignation of the party's president, Sonia Gandhi, have been expelled from the party.

Mike Wooldridge in Delhi: Congress is anxious to avoid creating splits or martyrs
The Congress Working Committee decided on Thursday their membership should be suspended for six years for refusing to accept a ruling from the leadership.

The rebels were not present to hear the decision.

The chiefs of four Congress organisations had demanded the rebels' immediate expulsion, and thousands of Mrs Gandhi's supporters have staged demonstrations across the country, to get her to withdraw her resignation.

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge: "Burning effigies in the streets"
The three dissidents, Sharad Pawar, Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar, said Mrs Gandhi's foreign birth should bar her from the possibility of becoming prime minister.

She is Italian by birth and inherited the mantle of India's foremost political dynasty because she is the widow of the assassinated former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Thursday's meeting is the first time the committee has met since Mrs Gandhi's resignation was announced on Monday.

Pressure from ordinary members of the party had built up on the committee to order the expulsion of the three rebels.

[ image: One woman was narrowly prevented from torching herself]
One woman was narrowly prevented from torching herself
One woman activist set herself alight outside Mrs Gandhi's house in Delhi, and similar attempts were made by four Congress workers in Madhya Pradesh.

Congress spokesman Ajit Jogi said Mrs Gandhi had urged party activists not to resort to such drastic pressure tactics.

Hundreds of party officials, including the chief ministers of four Congress-ruled states, tendered their resignations in support of Mrs Gandhi on Tuesday.

Risk of split

Although some party members said the three dissidents would probably split from the party, Sharad Pawar said that he had no such plans.

"We are not attempting the formation of any front," the former defence minister said.

He also denied there was any reason for the committee to expel them.

The men had not actually called for Mrs Gandhi's resignation from leadership of the Congress, but only said it was not right for people of foreign origin to serve in high office.

The suspension could result in a split in the party, which could harm its chances of making a come-back in the general election later this year.

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