New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Avenging the deaths of 58 Hindus in an arson attack on a train, Hindu mobs have rampaged through Muslim areas, killing at least 40 people.
Curfews have been imposed and the army has been called in to avert further bloodshed. Earlier, fearing a retaliatory outbreak, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cancelled a scheduled visit to Australia for a meeting of Commonwealth leaders.
The violence was triggered by a ghastly incident in which 58 Hindus, women and children among them, were burnt alive and many more injured when Muslims stoned and then torched a train in India's western Gujarat state.
Most of the train's passengers were Hindu activists returning from the northern town of Ayodhya, a flashpoint between Hindus and Muslims for more than five decades.
Until 1992, a mosque stood on a site in Ayodhya, which Hindus claimed was the birthplace of their god Rama. That year, hundreds of thousands of Hindus attacked the 16th century Islamic shrine. The disputed site has since been placed under heavy security, but militant Hindu fundamentalists have been making preparations to begin building a grand temple there.
The campaign to build a Ram temple was considered the factor most responsible for bringing Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power.
But since the BJP lacked a clear majority it was forced to form a coalition with secular parties, which forced it to abandon plans for the temple.
The matter has come to the fore again after two extremist Hindu groups allied to the BJP gave Vajpayee a March 12 deadline to make a decision to allow work on the temple to go ahead.
If it had failed to do so, they warned, they would begin work irrespective of the government's opinion or any hurdles created by the security forces.
Adding to Vajpayee's woes, his BJP lost power in four states during last week's regional elections.
Analysts say the prime minister faces a dilemma. If he annoys the Hindu factions his position within the BJP will be weakened. If he sides with them, secular coalition partners will abandon the government, and Vajpayee could lose power.
Further complicating matters is the fact the minister responsible for security, Home Minister L.K. Advani, was in 1992 one of those spearheading the takeover of the mosque site.
Vajpayee appealed to the Hindu hardliners to suspend their agitation, vowing the government would maintain law and order at all costs.
"[The] Ayodhya problem cannot be solved through a movement or violence," he said. "There are only two ways - find a solution through negotiations or leave it to the courts."
Exactly what prompted the attack on the train remains subject to speculation and conflicting reports. One says some of the passengers were misbehaving with women on the train, provoking the attack. Another says Muslims were angered by a rumor of an attack on a mosque in Gujarat state.
Yet another says the Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya had been chanting provocative slogans as the train passed through Muslim areas.
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