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September 8, 2013 5:54 pm
Hundreds of Indian soldiers have been deployed to restore order in a restive district in the state of Uttar Pradesh where at least 26 people, including a television camera man and a police photographer, were killed in a weekend of deadly communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Many more, including children, suffered serious injuries, while hundreds of Muslims have fled their homes, and are seeking refuge at police stations, or at the homes of relatives.
The clashes have heightened fears about the prospect for a surge of communal tensions in the run-up to next year’s Parliamentary election, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to regain power after ten years of Congress rule.
The Congress party has yet to name its prime ministerial candidate for the next election, but Manmohan Singh, the octogenarian prime minister, said at the weekend he would be happy to work under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the party’s heir apparent
The town of Muzaffarnagar, which is about 130km from Delhi, and its surrounding area have been placed under indefinite curfew, as Akilesh Yadav, Uttar Pradesh’s youthful chief minister, struggles to quell the unrest.
The region has been on the boil since three people, two Hindus and a Muslim, were killed in a village called Kanwal on August 27 during a brawl over the verbal harassment of a young woman.
The tensions finally erupted on Saturday after thousands of Hindu farmers gathered in a village to demand justice for the two slain Hindu men.
Uttar Pradesh police said the Hindu farmers were attacked with guns and knives as they left the meeting. At least 12 people were killed in the fighting on Saturday, with at least nine more reported killed in fresh clashes on Sunday. The state’s minority affairs minister said many of the speeches at the meeting were highly provocative and inflammatory. Clashes spread from Kanwal to nearby villages and many were reported injured.
Mr Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party is a regional ally of the ruling Congress party in New Delhi, has appealed for calm, promised tough punishment for the culprits and vowed harsh action against those seeking to instigate further unrest.
Soldiers carried out flag marches on Sunday and were carrying out house-to-house searches for weapons.
With India gearing up for Parliamentary elections next year, political parties have been quick to criticise what they say is Mr Yadav’s failure to maintain order, given the high tensions.
Both the ruling Congress and the Hindu-nationalist opposition BJP have condemned the violence, describing it as a failure of the Mr Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government.
However, Digvijaya Singh, a Congress party leader, on Sunday indirectly accused the BJP and its allied groups of deliberately fanning the flames of the violence. In a tweet appealing for peace and harmony between communities, he also warned that “all non-BJP ruled states have to be more careful”.
Over the weekend, Sushil Kumar Shinde, the interior minister, warned that India was likely to see a rise in communal tensions in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections. He said India had already recorded 450 incidents of communal violence so far this year, compared to 410 incidents for all of 2012.
Among the recent incidents was a riot that left two dead and 22 injured in a village in the eastern state of Bihar where the chief minister, Nitish Kumar, recently ended a longstanding political alliance with the BJP.
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