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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 14:08 GMT
Hunting for the Varanasi bombers

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Police outside Delhi's Birla Temple
Hindu temples have been targeted in the recent past
A day after twin blasts rocked the Hindu holy city of Varanasi the focus has shifted towards the investigation.

Police and special investigators are scouring the site of the two attacks, looking for any leads that could point to who or which groups might be involved.

So far the authorities have been cautious, saying only that the attack is almost definitely "a terrorist attack".

In the past such attacks have been blamed on Islamic groups, particularly those fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

For most Indians, the concern is that attacks such as the ones in Varanasi signify a worrying trend

But while those groups are quick to take credit for attacks on Indian security forces or government targets, they have always said that they never attack civilians.

Some security experts allege that militant groups have begun to look increasingly for soft targets such as civilians, hoping to create panic and also increase the possibility of retaliatory violence between Hindus and Muslims.

It is a theory that has been gaining currency, particularly after the deadly bombings in the Indian capital, Delhi, last October, which killed more than 60 people.

The fact remains however that Indian law enforcement agencies have rarely succeeded in linking militant groups to such attacks.

Only two major attacks have led to convictions - one on India's parliament in 2001 and an earlier attack on Delhi's Red Fort landmark, a year earlier.

Both attacks were blamed on two leading Kashmiri militant groups, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Political posturing

But the blame game has as much to do with local politics, with different parties using the opportunity to score points over one another.

A Bajrang Dal activist protesting the Varanasi attack
Hindu hardliners have been protesting against the attack
India's opposition leader, LK Advani, who belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has already pointed the finger at the country's long-time rival, Pakistan.

"People of India will not feel assured until the terrorist infrastructure across the border is fully dismantled," he said.

Pakistan has been quick to reject the allegation.

The governing Congress Party, on the other hand, has described the attacks as a "senseless act of violence" and instead focused on appealing for peace and harmony.

The party is concerned that any tension between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities could be exploited by hardline Hindu groups, at a time when Congress is trying to win back Muslim political support.

Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, is the country's most influential state politically and is due to hold state elections next year.

Analysts are not surprised that the BJP led the call for a day of protest in Varanasi, a move they believe has been made with an eye on the elections.

Soft targets

But for most Indians, the concern is that attacks such as the ones in Varanasi signify a worrying trend.

Over the past four years, ordinary Indians have been singled out in several high-profile attacks usually aimed at a Hindu temple or a public space such as a market.

The most notable are:

  • August 2002 - nine Hindu pilgrims killed in an attack in Kashmir

  • December 2002 - 14 Hindus killed in an attack on a temple in Jammu

  • August 2003 - more than 50 dead in two bomb attacks in Mumbai

  • Sept 2004 - about 30 killed in an attack on Gujarat's Akshardham temple

  • July 2005 - five militants killed after a failed attempt to storm a disputed site in Ayodhya

  • Oct 2005 - more than 60 killed in a series of bomb blasts in Delhi.

The attacks have led to much anger but the sentiment has rarely translated into a deterioration in relations between Hindus and Muslims.

That has of course not always been the case.

In 2002, an alleged attack on a train carrying Hindus in Gujarat sparked off widespread rioting, in which more than 1,000 people died, most of the victims Muslims.

The state authorities faced accusations, upheld by the Supreme Court, that they had done little to stop the violence.

Ten years earlier, about 2,000 people died across India after Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh.

Memories of two of the worst instances of violence since partition in 1947 are possibly one reason why India's prime minister and other senior government figures were quick to appeal for calm following Tuesday's attack.


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