Battlefield as Hindu rioters take revenge

Violence in India » Charred corpses in streets as angry mobs rampage 'in bastions of peace'
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Charred corpses lay on the streets of one of India's richest and most cultivated cities yesterday, their kin too terrified to venture out of hiding to take them away. Large areas of Ahmedabad, pride of the wealthiest state in the Indian union, resemble a battlefield, with smoke billowing from gutted buildings and the roads a chaos of rocks and burnt-out vehicles.

Charred corpses lay on the streets of one of India's richest and most cultivated cities yesterday, their kin too terrified to venture out of hiding to take them away. Large areas of Ahmedabad, pride of the wealthiest state in the Indian union, resemble a battlefield, with smoke billowing from gutted buildings and the roads a chaos of rocks and burnt-out vehicles.

A curfew has been clamped on 37 towns and cities across the western state of Gujarat and hundreds of soldiers have orders to shoot rioters on sight. But the violence that exploded last Wednesday, when a mob attacked a train packed with Hindu pilgrims, killing 58, shows no sign of abating.

In the ghetto-like Muslim mohallas, or hamlets, of Ahmedabad's old city, which suffered the fiercest wave of vengeful Hindu attacks, at least 122 people were burnt alive on Friday. The death toll continued to mount yesterday, with unnamed government officials telling the Associated Press that it now stands at 408.

The Foreign Office confirmed that a Briton, Mohammed Aswat Nallabhai, 41, from Batley, West Yorkshire, who was visiting Gujarat, was killed. Two other Britons in his group, named in reports as Saeed Dawood and Shakil Dawood, are missing.

More rioting and arson were reported in the cities of Surat, Bhavnagar and Vadodara, as well as Ahmedabad, Gujarat's commercial capital.

Twenty-seven Muslims were reported burnt alive yesterday as India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which leads the ruling coalition, pleaded with his own people, the foot-soldiers of Hindu nationalism, to relent. "Whatever the provocation, people should maintain peace and exercise restraint," he said on television. "The burning alive of people, including women and children ... is a blot on the country's face."

India was stunned by the bloodbath, at a loss to explain or excuse it. The provocation of Wednesday's atrocity was immense, but the retaliation has already far exceeded the original injury, and the brutality has acquired its own momentum. This is not the sort of communal violence to which India has become accustomed, with pockets of the urban poor venting their frustrations on the most convenient butt: people as poor and miserable as themselves.

What happened in Gujarat was horribly reminiscent of the bloodshed across much of Punjab following partition. The violence has begun to take on a systematic look: ethnic cleansing, Indian-style, just as the Muslim- and Hindu-dominated portions of Punjab were viciously purged of their minorities in 1947.

Indian commentators have recognised that this is something very sinister.

"Communal violence," wrote Parag Dave in Saturday's Asian Age paper, "used to be a common factor in areas identified as communally sensitive ... [but it] has spread ... to cities, towns and villages which have no history of violence in the past 52 years and were considered to be bastions of peace".

The city of Rajkot, for example, the home town of Mahatma Gandhi, India's great apostle of non-violence, has never seen the communities confronting each other. But on Thursday, 150 shops were burnt down to avenge the anti-Hindu atrocity."The army was deployed for the first time in the history of the city," writes Mr Dave.

The supposed trigger for Wednesday's attack was the proclaimed aim of an extreme Hindu group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to begin, on 15 March, in defiance of the courts, building a Hindu temple in Ayodhya on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was torn down by a Hindu mob in December 1992.

The BJP gained great prestige and political capital from the demolition, which helped bring it to power seven years later. But now the government is discovering that it is easier to ignite and fan such flames than douse them.

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