- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

NEW DELHI A Muslim mob attacked and burned a train full of Hindu activists yesterday in a foretaste of sectarian violence that threatens to sweep India if Hindus build a planned temple on the disputed site of a mosque in northern India.

At least 57 persons, mostly women and children, died in the attack on the train, which was carrying Hindus away from Ayodhya, where the Hindu nationalists plan to build a temple on the site of a demolished mosque.

India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, immediately appealed to his party's militant Hindu wing to stop the construction of the temple.

His appeal was accompanied by a similar call from his hard-line home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, whose supporters demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque 10 years ago, sparking communal riots across India that claimed 3,000 lives, most of them Muslim.

Referring to the thousands of Hindu militants currently mobilizing in Ayodhya to erect the temple, Mr. Advani said yesterday: "This is a course of action fraught with disastrous consequences."

Mr. Vajpayee urged the Hindu activists to resolve the matter "not through agitation or violence, but through talks or through the courts."

Initial reports said the train from Ayodhya was attacked by hundreds of Muslims wielding stones as it left the town of Godhra, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat state, which has a sizable Muslim population and a history of Hindu-Muslim clashes. Three locked cars were burned, trapping people inside. However, the prime minister, speaking about the incident later, said that it may have been sparked by the Hindu militants themselves, who shouted slogans from the train.

Police in Godhra were ordered to shoot troublemakers on sight. In subsequent incidents of violence, two persons were stabbed and mobs tried to set ablaze two buses in Ahmedabad, police said.

In the last few days, more than 20,000 Hindus, many wearing saffron turbans and led by trident-wielding holy men, have gathered at Ayodhya to conduct sacred rites and prepare the site for the temple, which has been largely prefabricated in stone-carving workshops throughout India over the last five or six years.

Many were ordinary villagers, drawn by the sanctity of a site widely believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of the god, Ram. But many more were "Ram sevaks" or "workers for Ram," mobilized by the World Hindu Council, the umbrella organization of India's holy men, who are ideologically linked to the government.

Hindu leaders believe the Mogul emperor Babar demolished a temple for Ram at the site to build a mosque in the 16th century.

About 100,000 fervent Hindus are eventually expected to march on the site, bringing with them the carved sandstone pillars and friezes of Hindu gods and goddesses, which are being stored nearby.

Meanwhile, hundreds of paramilitaries have been deployed to prevent the temple stones being moved to the site.

Yesterday evening, Mr. Vajpayee announced that he had called off a forthcoming visit to Australia to attend a Commonwealth summit in order to deal with the temple crisis. The authorities also said they would block all trains carrying Hindu activists to the site, as well as roads around Ayodhya. But many believe the government's reaction is "too little, too late."

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