Hundreds of troops have been dispatched to India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh after 28 people were killed in a weekend of communal violence, police said on Monday.
Authorities declared a high security alert after clashes between Muslims and Hindus in Uttar Pradesh, which has witnessed some of the country’s worst religious riots in recent decades.
TV footage showed troops on patrol in riot-hit areas with villagers seeking safety in police stations in the worst-hit Muzaffarnagar district, 105 kilometers northeast of the capital New Delhi.
Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav called for calm in the state, which has a sizeable Muslim population, as television aired footage of injured victims on hospital trolleys.
“No leniency will be shown towards those disturbing peace. District officers have been given a free hand to control the situation,” Yadav warned in televised remarks.
Some 800 troops had been deployed to the state, India’s most populous with 200 million people, NDTV network said.
“The number of those dead has risen to 28. We have also arrested 90 persons,” Arun Kumar, a top state police officer, told reporters in Muzaffarnagar where 38 percent of the population is Muslim and the remainder mainly Hindu.
“The situation is currently under control,” Kumar said.
A broadcast journalist for the local IBN7 television network and a police photographer were among those killed in weekend violence, the most serious in recent years.
Politically pivotal Uttar Pradesh witnessed deadly riots in 1992 following the razing of a mosque by a Hindu mob.
More than 2,000 people—mostly Muslims—were killed in unrest after the 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya was demolished in some of India’s worst communal clashes.
The recent clashes have triggered speculation political parties are seeking to polarize the state along religious lines ahead of general elections due in 2014.
The state’s secular ruling Samajwadi Party has accused leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of fuelling tensions with inflammatory speeches.
The clashes erupted late Saturday after thousands of Hindu farmers held a meeting to demand justice over the killing of three Hindu men who had protested when a woman was allegedly harassed.
The farmers were attacked as they were returning home, triggering an angry backlash, media reported.
Clashes then broke out in neighboring villages between Hindus and Muslims and the army stepped in to bring the situation under control.
“They started firing rounds at our homes from the fields and soon they were hurling petrol bombs,” a Muslim villager, Iqbal Ansari, told the Indian Express daily.
“My house, my belongings and my life’s savings were burned to the ground,” he said.
A state BJP politician called accusations that the party was behind the violence baseless.
“The government has failed on all the fronts… they are now searching for a scapegoat,” Hukum Singh told NDTV.
The BJP is working to revive its fortunes before the general elections by attacking the ruling Congress party government over a string of corruption scandals.
The national government has warned that India is witnessing a rise in communal violence, and that there could be further such incidents in the run-up to the polls.
“Communal violence incidents have increased since last year. While 410 incidents occurred in the country last year. This year, till now, 451 incidents have taken place,” federal Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters at the weekend. AFP