Himanta Biswa Sarma sin cancer
Indian minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a speech that people could get diseases like cancer "because of the sins of their parents." BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images

An Indian minister has come under fire for saying that cancer is "divine justice" caused by "past sins".

Himanta Biswa Sarma, a popular health minister in the northeastern state of Assam, sparked outrage with his comments.

"God makes us suffer when we sin. Sometimes we come across young men getting inflicted with cancer or young men meeting with accidents. If you observe the background you will come to know that it's divine justice. Nothing else. We have to suffer that divine justice," Sarma said during a speech in Assam's largest city, Guwahati, on Wednesday (22 November).

Opposition parties demanded Sarma apologise for his remarks.

The All India United Democratic Front said that Sarma had made the comments to "cover his failure to control the spread of cancer in the state".

On social media, people expressed anger and shock at the minister's statement.

The former chairman of Motorola Mobility, Sanjay Jha, wrote on Twitter: "Your statement on the cancer-affected is cold, callous and carcinogenic. Basic decency demands a simple apology. We all make mistakes. Don't let your ego come in the way."

Smita Sharma, deputy editor of The Tribune newspaper, tweeted: "I don't tweet about personal issues. But I have to say this - my niece was only 11yrs old when she lost her father to cancer. Innumerable families have gone through the unspeakable pain & trauma of Cancer. I wouldn't wish it even upon worst enemies. Shame on you Mr.Min."

Sarma refused to apologise following the uproar.

"I have nothing to say if anyone compares science with philosophical views. Karma is the basis of Hindu philosophy, and I cannot change this. As a Hindu, I will adhere to it. My father must have committed sin too, because he died of cancer," he told the Hindustan Times.

Only 12.5% of cancer patients in India receive treatment in the early stages of the disease due to a lack of testing and awareness, according to a 2016 report by the Indian Council of Medical Research. The report stated that the number of new cancer patients in India is expected to grow by 25% by 2020.