Vengeful Hindu mobs torched Muslim homes, killing scores, as rioting spread through western Gujarat state yesterday as the death toll in India's worst religious strife in a decade reached 415, officials said.
They said the violence continued unchecked for a fourth day despite army troops being deployed with orders to shoot-to-kill rioters. A curfew was imposed in 37 towns. In a national television broadcast, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appealed for peace and restraint, saying the violence was a "blot" on the nation's reputation.
Police said fresh rioting and arson was reported in the cities of Surat, Bhavnagar, Vadodra and Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat and the worst hit by the mob violence. In Ahmadabad, mobs set fire to shops in at least three neighborhoods yesterday and prevented fire trucks from approaching, fire brigade officials said.
In the eastern town of Vadodra, at least seven Muslims working at a bakery were burned alive by a mob, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity. On Friday, at least 122 Muslims, trapped inside their homes, were burned to death by Hindus in three separate attacks in Ahmadabad and two other villages, police said.
The bloodshed was triggered by a Muslim mob burning a train carrying Hindu nationalists on Wednesday in Godhra town in the state, killing 58 people. Since then, right-wing Hindus have been on a retaliatory rampage in this large state, one of India's richest, burning down Muslim homes. Muslims residents have accused police and soldiers of standing by and watching residents, including women and children, being slaughtered, often with swords and sticks.
State government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the death toll in four days of carnage is 415 including those killed in the train and 47 killed in police firing. However, the state police control room put the toll at 383.
It is the worst religious clashes in India since 1993, when 800 people were killed during Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay.
"It's not a good thing what happened but this chain reaction is normal. Now everybody has to suffer," said Satish Aggarwal, a Hindu who operates a dairy kiosk in the Amdupura neighborhood of Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat, and the worst hit by mob violence.
A small crowd of Hindu residents gathered at Aggarwal's kiosk said Muslims were to blame for the events of the last few days. "It's the Muslims' fault, it's the Muslims' fault," they shouted.
Gujarat is the home state of Mohandas Gandhi, India's independence leader, an icon of nonviolence who struggled for reconciliation between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority during the post-independence religious riots of 1947. About 12 percent of India's 1 billion people are Muslims and Hindus comprise 82 percent.
In Ahmadabad, many hotels, shops and restaurants have been destroyed and looting has been widespread. Bodies blackened by fire lay in the streets, along with burned-out furnishings and vehicles, shredded clothes and other personal belongings.