Curfews fail to halt Indian religious riots

HINDUS and Muslims battled in towns and cities around India for the third day running, as curfews and troops failed to quell the violence which flared after Hindu zealots destroyed a disputed mosque. The death-toll has passed 675, with 2,500 people injured, officials said. A general strike was called by Hindu revivalist groups but it was difficult to gauge its impact yesterday, since hundreds of towns and parts of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta were under curfew.

The violence took a sinister turn yesterday. During the past two days, most deaths occurred in clashes between police and Muslims, who rioted out of frustration with the government's failure to protect their historic mosque in Ayodhya. But yesterday Muslims turned against their Hindu neighbours, and Hindus against Muslims.

A particularly barbaric incident occurred in Surat, a city in Gujarat whose lanes are lined with shops where Muslims sit, five or six crammed in little rooms, cutting and polishing diamonds. On Tuesday a mob of Hindus raided the diamond-cutters' lanes and began setting the shops on fire. More than 28 Muslims were burnt to death and by the time the army restored order yesterday, another 47 people had died.

In Bombay, despite the curfew and the strike call, Muslim-Hindu clashes raged on. Rival gangs rampaged in each other's neighbourhoods, looting, stabbing and setting fire to shops and homes. In Bombay, the death-toll after three days of sectarian strife rose to 104. Soldiers and police guarded many of Bombay's main, empty, intersections, while patrols attempted vainly to maintain calm in the city's slums.

Fighting broke out between the two religious communities in the states of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Rajasthan. In Haryana, Muslims desecrated Hindu shrines, while in Madhya Pradesh, Hindu extremists were said to have stormed several police stations and seized weapons.

Parliament was adjourned for a week to let MPs' tempers cool. Pandemonium had ruled in parliament for a third day, making it impossible for the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, to explain why his government had not stopped Hindu militants tearing down the controversial 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya. Yesterday he urged left-wing parties to join the Congress government in helping to end the turmoil. But his pleas were rebuffed by many politicians, who demanded that Mr Rao resign.

On Tuesday, police arrested Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the main opposition group, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for his alleged role in rallying hordes of Hindu militants to the Ayodhya mosque on Sunday. The arrest of Mr Advani and other Hindu revivalist leaders moved one BJP chief, Murli Manohar Joshi, to declare: 'The government has declared war on us. The war is on.'

Yesterday Mr Rao said the intensity of the rioting had lessened. Today he is expected to ban Hindu and Muslim extremist groups. But this may not lead to immediate peace: some of these militant groups have over a million cadres capable of stirring up more religious strife across India.

(Photograph omitted)

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