Deadly clashes in India sparked by killing of three men

Men were killed after objecting to a woman being harassed; death toll in violence rises to 22

India_violence

Indian army vehicles patrol on a deserted road during a curfew Saturday in Muzaffarnagar, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.  Reuters

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Hundreds of troops have been deployed to quell deadly riots and clashes between Hindus and Muslims in northern India, sparked by the killing of three villagers who had objected when a young woman was being harassed.

Local administration officials told Al Jazeera that the death toll from Saturday’s violence rose to 22 Sunday, after several people succumbed to injuries received a day earlier.

The sectarian violence comes after a series of recent cases where gang rapes of women prompted calls for tougher laws punishing sexual assault in India.

Five suspects from a recent assault are likely to face prosecution under a new law that sets the maximum prison term for rape at 20 years. The judge’s verdict in that case is due Tuesday.

In December, a gang of men sexually assaulted a woman on a bus in Delhi. She later died from her injuries. The incident sparked widespread outrage throughout the country.

Soldiers go door to door

In this recent violence, an Indian broadcast journalist and a police photographer were among the dead after the two groups set upon each other with guns and knives in Kawal village, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The fighting quickly spread to neighboring villages in Muzaffarnagar district on Saturday night.

“A curfew has been imposed in three riot-hit areas of Muzaffarnagar,” the head of the state’s home ministry, R. M. Srivastava, said.

“The situation is still very tense, but under control,” he added.

An army contingent of up to 800 people was dispatched to the area on Saturday night, as armed gangs of Jats, a group which practices Hinduism, stormed a mosque and a village with Muslim residents, he told Reuters news agency.

Soldiers were going door to door to search for weapons. A state of high alert was declared for the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 200 million people.

‘Well-planned attack’

The clashes broke out after thousands of Hindu farmers held a meeting in Kawal to demand justice in the August 27 killing of three men who had spoken out when a woman was being verbally harassed.

The state’s minority welfare minister, Mohammad Azam Khan, said some at the meeting gave provocative speeches calling for Muslims to be killed.

The farmers were attacked as they were returning home after the meeting, senior police official Arun Kumar said.

“The attack seemed well-planned,” Kumar said. “Some were armed with rifles and sharp-edged weapons.”

He said tensions were fuelled by an online video purporting to show the killing of two Muslim youths last month.

A leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said tensions had been simmering since the three men were killed in a tea shop.

“Had the killers been arrested, the situation might not have gone out of hand,” Vijay Bahadur Pathak said.

Uttar Pradesh was at the heart of some of India’s worst communal clashes in December 1992, after a Hindu mob razed the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

The government has warned that India is seeing a rise in ethnic violence, with 451 incidents reported already this year, compared to 410 for all of 2012.

Tensions were expected to escalate in the run-up to next year’s national elections, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi on Saturday.

He said all 28 of India’s states should stay alert and improve their ability to gather intelligence.