31 killed as communal riots flare up in India

Soldiers stand guard on a deserted street during a curfew in Muzaffarnagar, 127 km (80 miles) northeast of New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh September 9, 2013.

INDIA - Thirty-one people were killed over the weekend in the biggest Hindu-Muslim riot in years, raising fears of rising communal tensions ahead of next year's election, which pits the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the ruling Congress.

In the riot-hit district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state on Monday, soldiers continued to patrol streets and carry out door-to-door weapon searches.

People stayed indoors with shops, schools and offices shut as a curfew and shoot-on-sight orders remained in force.

"The situation is currently under control," Mr Arun Kumar, a police official in charge of state law and order, said at a press conference.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims had been simmering in the area after two Hindu men killed a Muslim man last month for harassing their female cousin.

They were in turned killed by the Muslim man's family, triggering communal unrest in the area. An online video showing mob violence further inflamed sentiments.

Police later said the video contained old footage.

Federal Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said intelligence agencies had warned of rising communal violence in 11 of India's 29 states.

"As elections are approaching, I had assessed there would be an increase in communal tension in the country," he said on television.

A riot of this scale has not been seen in recent years even though smaller sectarian clashes have been taking place in different parts of India.

Twenty years ago, Hindus and Muslims rioted after a mosque was demolished by Hindu activists in the town of Ayodhya, leaving more than 1,000 people dead.

More recently, in 2002 in Gujarat, more than 1,000 were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots.

Last month, police arrested hundreds of Hindu activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a group associated with the BJP, as they tried to march to Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh to push for the construction of a Hindu temple at the same site.

In Muzaffarnagar, four BJP members of the state legislative assembly were among those booked by police on Monday for making "inflammatory remarks" at a village meeting of the Hindu community on Saturday. Police said this was a flashpoint of the violence. The four BJP members denied making any such statements.

Police have arrested 90 people so far. According to Home Ministry statistics, there were 410 communal incidents last year and 451 so far this year.

Political analysts said communal tensions are likely to rise particularly in Uttar Pradesh with politicians hoping to take advantage of religious division to win votes.

Uttar Pradesh has a major influence on national politics. It sends 80 MPs to the 544-seat Lower House of Parliament, the highest representation from any state.

"This is all the power game. Political parties want to divide society for votes," said Dr Aftab Alam, associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.

The BJP hopes to gain some seats in the state.

"The only way the BJP can make inroads into Uttar Pradesh politics is by polarising voters on communal lines," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"It looks bad because we have had relative calm for several years. We have not had serious communal flare-up."

Even as the BJP was rapped for fanning tensions, the government of Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was criticised for not acting more decisively.

"If it wanted, it could have stopped it," said Ms Mayawati of the rival Bahujan Samaj Party.

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