Gloves off as India's BJP woos the Hindu vote in northern heartland

Gloves off as India's BJP woos the Hindu vote in northern heartland
India's Bharatiya Janata Party Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi poses with the party manifesto upon its release in New Delhi.

MUZAFFARNAGAR, India - India's main opposition party, tipped to form the next government, appears to be returning to its Hindu nationalist roots at the start of a five-week general election, raking up divisive issues and using strong language in an area hit by religious riots.

Criss-crossing the country for months before the first phase of voting began on Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, had mainly campaigned on a ticket of better governance, economic development and job creation.

But just hours after voting started, the election commission demanded an explanation from Modi's chief aide Amit Shah, accusing him of incendiary speeches in towns where dozens of people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots last year.

"It is not anyone's hobby to riot. When justice is not done to all the parties and the action is one-sided action, then the public is forced to come out in the streets," Shah said in the town of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state last week, according to a transcript provided by the commission.

In a series of speeches in the area, Shah also said voters should reject parties that put up Muslim candidates. He said Muslims in the area had raped, killed and humiliated Hindus.

Shah did not respond to requests for comment, but the BJP has said he was within his rights to ask people to express their anger through the ballot box.

India's 1.2 billion people include 150 million Muslims, who form a sizeable minority in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state and a key electoral battleground.

The riots in Muzaffarnagar last year started with a minor scuffle, which were exacerbated by inflammatory speeches by several local politicians, news reports have said.

Although sectarian rioting is on the decline in India, it is still hit by spasms of Hindu-Muslim violence. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed when colonial India was divided in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Pakistan, an Islamic state.

Elections in India are also times of heightened tensions because political parties often pitch for votes on the basis of religious identity.

On Monday, the BJP released its election manifesto, promising to build a temple on the site of a mosque torn down by Hindu zealots more than two decades ago, reopening one of the most divisive issues in the country. The party also said it remained committed to withdrawing the special autonomous status for Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.

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