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Uttar Pradesh rocked: Hindu-Muslim violence erupts as India's electoral battle looms

Politicians accused of inflaming tensions after Muslims flee homes in Uttar Pradesh

The streets are stilled, the doors shuttered. Hundreds of people have fled. Over the course of a day, up to 1,000 Muslims left this village in fear for their lives. A number were killed, several homes were torched and someone tried to set alight to the mosque.

“Our home was set on fire and eight people were killed,” claimed Rahisha Begum, one of hundreds of Muslims taking refuge in a emergency shelter in the nearby town of Shapar. “Our women were molested. People were cut into pieces.”

The people of the twin villages of Kutbi and Kutba are among more than 40,000 Muslims forced from their homes in some of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in western Uttar Pradesh for decades. A smaller number of Hindus have also fled and at least 48 people have died.

Communal violence is nothing new to India or to UP, the huge, impoverished but politically crucial state which returns 80 members to the national parliament. But what has created particular concern about the latest bloodletting is the central role local politicians apparently took in turning a localised incident into something much more deadly, and doing so for political gains.

There are fears that ahead of an upcoming general election, which will see the controversial Narendra Modi - a politician whose name is associated with one of the worst massacres of Muslims since 1947 – try to wrestle control from the ruling Congress party, such incidents could become more frequent.

Kutba, 15 miles from Muzzaffarnager, is one of 90 villages affected by the violence. As with most of the other villages, sugar cane is among the most important of crops grown here. And as with the other villages, members of the Hindu jat caste have traditionally owned most of the land, while Muslims have worked as agricultural labourers.

Unlike in other parts of UP, members of both communities here said they had always coexisted without violence. That ended following an incident on August 27 in Kawaal, 25 miles away, when a young Muslim man was killed after an altercation with two Hindu youths. The following day, the two Hindus were killed in revenge.

On September 7, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered to demand justice for the two young men killed. Several local politicians addressed the rally, some of them reportedly making inflammatory speeches.

Over the following 48 hours, more than 25 people were killed, including a cameraman with a local news channel. Hindus said they were attacked by Muslims as they left the rally. Muslims said they were set upon by Hindus. The violence spread, and dragged on, and the authorities sent in the army.

Those who fled say they are too terrified to return. “We will not be going back there,” said Muhammad Usman, who was also at the emergency shelter.

Muhammad Abrar, who said a brother and three uncles were killed, referred to Mr Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Though he was unable to offer any proof, he claimed the BJP, which last week named Mr Modi as its candidate for prime minister, had been paying people to attack Muslims.

“We don’t want Narendra Modi as prime minister,” he added. “He would be very bad for Muslims.”

But in Kutba, on the road to which dozens of egrets flashed toothpaste-white amid the green of the sugar-cane, there was a different story. Here the Hindu villagers claimed Muslims had left in an attempt to secure government compensation. They had even set fire to their own homes, they said.

“All the Muslims came together to plan this,” said 78-year-old Harbir Singh, seated on a rope-strung bed. “They think they will get their own township.”

The villagers led the way through the quiet streets, pointing out deserted Muslim homes, one which had been destroyed by fire. Even amid the charred debris at the house apparently owned by a man named Idriss, the villagers stuck to their claim that Muslims were responsible.

At the village mosque, there was more evidence of arson; someone had thrown kerosene over a door and lit a match. Why it had not taken hold was unclear.

Asked if Muslims had also set fire to the mosque, one villager, Chaudhary Vikas Balian, said Hindus from another village were responsible. As it was, he said, the people from Kutba had driven them off and saved the building.

The BJP’s selection of Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, has electrified India’s election campaign. Even though he has not visited this part of UP and while there is no suggestion he was behind the violence, his name is mentioned by those on either side of the clashes.

Swapan Dasgupta, an analyst, said Muslims in western UP had built Mr Modi into a bogeyman while Hindus projected him as someone who would protect them against Muslim advancement. “It’s paranoia in the mind,” he said.

The situation has been further complicated by local politics. Several major parties are looking to make gains in the election and the Samajwadi Party, which runs the UP state government and which draws much support from Muslims, has even been accused of failing to stop the violence in order to cement the community’s support for the party.

Reports suggest that 16 politicians face arrest; four BJP politicians have already been detained. Arun Kumar, a senior UP police official, said a team had been established to probe the killings. He said five deaths in Kutba were being investigated. He said: “We have set up a special cell to look at all these cases.”