Three days of religious violence had cost as many as 250 lives in the Indian state of Gujarat by Friday morning. According to the Times of India, “Neither the Army nor the shoot-at-sight orders given to the Gujarat police could control the mob frenzy in Ahmedabad … as the city witnessed a total collapse of the law and order machinery for the second straight day taking a heavy toll of human lives and the government’s own credibility.” The paper reported that “mobs ruled the streets in almost all the curfew-bound areas killing people, burning shops and houses and fighting pitched battles without much sign of the security forces.” The Times of India was one of the few papers not to identify the religion of the rioters: On Thursday and Friday, most of the rioters were Hindus attacking Muslims to avenge the massacre of 57 Hindu nationalists burnt to death on a train Wednesday.
The Times of London described the eruption of communal violence as the “most serious challenge” to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government since it came to power in 1999. “For it forces him to intervene in an issue that could polarise all India, split his party, destabilise much of northern India and weaken the state at a time of high tension with Pakistan.” The issue is the plan by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) to build a Hindu temple on the site of a 400-year-old mosque demolished by mobs in 1992 (the mosque had displaced a Hindu temple centuries before). In recent weeks, VHP members have gathered on the site and have vowed to begin construction March 15 in defiance of government instructions. VHP activists were returning from the temple site when their train was attacked Wednesday.
The Nation of Pakistan claimed that the “train burning was set off by grave provocation by VHP” activists, but an op-ed in the Hindustan Times was skeptical about the incitement defense: “[I]t does seem extraordinary that slogans shouted from a moving train or at a railway platform should have been enough to enrage local Muslims, enough for 2,000 of them to have quickly assembled at eight in the morning, having already managed to procure petrol bombs and acid bombs.” The Telegraph of Calcutta said the attack on the train “was a deliberate act carried out to harm a selected group of people. … The identity of those who burnt the train is still unknown but their motives and purpose can easily be guessed. Their actions were designed to spark off communal violence and to aggravate tension. By all accounts, they have been eminently successful.”
Commentators urged the prime minister to crack down on the rioters. The Telegraph said that if the violence is not immediately suppressed, “Vajpayee’s government might find itself caught in a sequence of disasters.” More ominously, an op-ed in the Times of India fretted that Vajpayee “has overestimated his capacity to enforce peace through verbal appeals and physical presence alone. … The physical targeting of Muslims and their businesses … is likely to have disastrous consequences for the country. … At a time when Muslim Indians are already feeling alienated and victimised, the carnage in Gujarat will drive them to the wall.”