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India Muslims: Police Abandoned Us

March 2, 2002

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AHMADABAD, India (AP) _ A day after 7,000 Hindus rampaged through her neighborhood, Noorjahan Shaikh recalled how police slapped her mother and called her names when she pleaded with them for protection.

What’s worse, she said, police stood by and watched as the mob hurled homemade bombs at shops and beat the Muslim residents with sticks.

``We pray to God to help us because we know the police won’t,″ said the 16-year-old, one of about a dozen Muslims who sheltered nervously Saturday under the awning of a small hardware store.

``All of this really hurts,″ she said, looking down at trembling hands painted with brown henna flowers.

As the violence subsided in Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat, and spread to the villages, Muslims and Hindus were left stunned by three days of religious rioting that claimed more than 400 lives in the western Indian state.

Many blamed the state and national police _ whose bosses belong to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Hindu-nationalist party _ and said the federal government waited too long to send the army.

``Instead of protecting us, they were supporting the mob,″ said Rafi Ahmad, a state insurance officer who is Noorjahan’s neighbor. ``The police were just telling us that they were helpless.″

This week’s sectarian violence is the worst since 1992-93, when 2,800 people were killed nationwide. That upheaval was provoked by the razing of a 16th century mosque by Hindu activists in the northern town of Ayodhya.

Tension between India’s minority Muslims and majority Hindus has been building for weeks as the World Hindu Council insisted that it would begin construction of a temple on the Muslim holy site by March 15. The Hindu group believes it is the birthplace of the god Rama.

Hundreds of Hindu nationalists were returning from Ayodhya Wednesday when their train stopped in Godhra, a town south of Ahmadabad. A scuffle broke out on the platform and Muslims set fire to the train. Fifty-eight people were killed, including 14 children and many Hindu activists.

This set off the retaliatory rampage that has gripped the state, with horror stories of Muslim families cornered and burned alive by Hindus.

Warily wandering the littered streets, Hindus blamed the Muslims, who, in turn, blamed the police and government.

``I can give you a gentleman’s promise that Muslims did not want this,″ said Iqbal G. Shaikh, Noorjahan’s uncle. ``And I tell you in the name of God that Hindus did not want this. It’s the RSS, the VHP.″

Shaikh was referring to the two powerful Hindu nationalist groups behind the Ayodhya temple plans, whose leaders demanded retribution for the train deaths: the World Hindu Council, known by its Hindi-language initials VHP, and the Association of National Volunteers, or RSS.

Ahmad also blamed police and Narendra Modi, the state’s top elected official and a member of Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist party.

``We don’t blame the Hindus,″ Ahmad said as he and Shaikh stumbled through the rubble of demolished homes in their neighborhood. ``It’s the police and it’s Modi, who turned a blind eye.″

Modi called such statements ``propaganda by our opponents.″

``Police are taking strict action to control the situation,″ he told reporters Saturday.

Modi was criticized for not containing the violence early and for praising Gujaratis for their ``restraint.″

Modi said his police were outnumbered and suggested that some Muslims _ such as a former member of Parliament who was burned alive with 38 members of his family and neighbors _ brought the violence on themselves.

Other police officials insist they did the best they could.

``We are only 100 police here,″ said K.K. Mysorewala, a police inspector in Naroda Patia a town south of Ahmadabad where 66 Muslims were burned alive in a shantytown Friday morning.

``First they were beaten and then burned alive,″ Mysorewala said Saturday. ``Three more died today.″

Police patrolled indifferently past the blackened body of an elderly man, frozen in terror and pain on a bed outside his brightly painted brick house. Pigs sniffed at a charred skull across the street from a mosque that had been burned to the ground.

``We tried to save as many as we could,″ Mysorewala said.

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