Communal Violence in Gujarat

[warning: this is a mainstream account from a mainstream media source…  we present it here because of the information it contains… ZNet South Asia]

India’s worst outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence for a decade escalated yesterday with the deaths of 60 more people in the riot-torn western state of Gujarat amid fears the violence could spread.

A political crisis also loomed as the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, begged Hindu militants to halt inflammatory plans to raise a temple over the rubble of the mosque. Six rioters were shot dead by police and at least seven Muslims were stabbed to death as towns in Gujarat erupted. Muslim businesses, homes, vehicles and mosques were set alight.

A single act of violence stood out on a day of horror. A 2,000-strong mob surrounded a block of Muslim flats in the Hindu-dominated area of Meghaninagar and set it alight. A dozen children and 26 adults were thought to have been burned alive. The mob blocked roads to stop police and firefighters rescuing victims. The mobs were out for revenge after nearly 60 Hindu activists from the Hindu World Council (VHP) were murdered by Muslims who hurled firebombs into their train at Godhra station on Wednesday.

The horror of that attack, in which 14 children also died, stoked an atmosphere of inter-communal hatred that threatens to spread to other states ahead of a 15 March deadline imposed by militants for the building of a temple at the flashpoint of Ayodhya in northern India. Yesterday it was the turn of Muslim businesses, homes, restaurants and mosques to be sought out, doused with fuel and set alight.

Hindu mobs fuelled by primal hate and armed with swords, clubs and petrol cans hunted them on the streets, inside the walled city and through the stinking slums of Ahmadabad’s Muslim ghettoes. Often the police, claiming that they were hopelessly outnumbered, stood by as one of India’s most modern and richest cities was taken over by men bent on murder. By the end of the day, the death toll was at least 60 and expected to rise.

The army was called on to the streets to restore order and wrest control back from the mobs, which set fire to dozens of buildings and looted many more. Curfews were imposed in 26 towns and 70,000 officers were drafted on to the state’s streets. About 700 people were arrested. Much of the anger was spontaneous, fuelled by the horror of Wednesday’s massacre. But even as smoke from the Muslim slums hung over the city, the state government announced it would investigate the conduct of Ahmadabad’s police force, which is notoriously Hindu-dominated in a city that for decades has been infamous for its bitter religious conflicts.

Ahmadabad’s descent into savagery came just over a year since it was hit by an earthquake that killed nearly a thousand people and brought down dozens of buildings. But yesterday man, not nature, brought death to the city. “There is a fire inside us. Our blood is boiling,” said one Hindu woman, Mangal Behn. Many eyewitness reports suggested that at least some of yesterday’s attacks were organised and directed as cold-blooded revenge for the train massacre of Hindus at Godhra. Other parts of India could only watch with a fascinated fear – and hope the bloodletting would not spread.

Once again the flashpoint had been Ayodhya, the site of a 16th-century mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992 because they believed it to be the birthplace of the god Ram. They want to build a temple on the rubble and – defying a court order – have come up with the self-imposed deadline of 15 March to begin construction. Pressure grew on Mr Vajpayee last night to clamp down on the VHP. There were also fears of more copycat attacks on trains carrying militants and more riots.

The militants’ destruction of the mosque in 1992 sparked rioting across India in which 2,000 people died. The men now ruling India were implicated, especially the home minister, L K Advani. Ayodhya has become a rallying point for the ugly side of Hinduism, the fundamentalists who would root out Western influence and put down India’s 100 million Muslims. Many want a war to settle old scores with Pakistan. Last night the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government of Mr Vajpayee seemed to be on a collision course with its one-time VHP allies, as opposition leaders called for the VHP to be banned.

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