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Wednesday, 25 September, 2002, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Analysis: India's religious clashes
The gutted wreckage of one of the train cars
There were fears that the train attack would spark retaliation
The attack by a Muslim crowd on a train carrying Hindus at Godhra was followed by widespread inter-communal violence in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Although India is in principle a secular country, in which the followers of all religions are meant to enjoy full rights, religious tensions have been a recurring problem.

But the arson attack on the train in which dozens died was singularly shocking and the backlash against Muslims was almost inevitable.

Volatile situation

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was so alarmed by the situation that he cancelled a trip to Australia where he was due to attend this weekend's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

While in no way condoning the action by the Muslims who attacked the train, he acknowledges that Hindu militants have inflamed feelings.

Many of the people on board the train were supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP, which is involved in attempts to build a Hindu temple at a holy site in the town of Ayodhya, where an ancient mosque was destroyed in September 1992.

"The incident is very painful and regrettable," said Mr Vajpayee.

"I appeal to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to suspend their campaign and help the government in maintaining peace and brotherhood in the country.

"The Gujarat government has ordered an inquiry and we are in contact with the Gujarat government."

Curfews

The situation is particularly embarrassing for Mr Vajpayee because his own party is a Hindu nationalist organisation, although one that eschews the extremism of groups like the VHP.

Critics have often said the prime minister should impose curbs on such groups, but he has found it difficult politically to do so.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
Mr Vajpayee is in a difficult political position
VHP supporters on the train - who had been visiting Ayodhya - reportedly enraged Muslims near the station at Godhra by chanting Hindu slogans.

In order to try to contain any backlash, the federal government in Delhi urged state and local governments throughout the country to impose curfews and other measures as necessary.

Junior Interior Minister ID Swami said: "The government has already issued instructions to all the state governments, not only to Gujarat and Maharashtra, that all preventive measures should be taken.

"And we are ensuring that such an unfortunate incident does not recur anywhere else, because in such a situation the exploiters can take advantage of the situation."

Secular nature

However useful curfews and other such measures may be in providing a breathing space in which passions might cool, they can only be temporary.

And in the view of the General Secretary of the opposition Telugu Desam party, C Ramachandraiya, a solution to inter-communal tensions will only come about when India reasserts its secular nature.

"We are prepared to go to any extent to maintain secularism in this country. We are committed to secularism," he said.

The federal government has assured Mr Ramachandraiya and others that it will not allow the VHP and other Hindu militants to carry out their threat to begin construction of the proposed temple in Ayodhya on 15 March.

But the dilemma for Mr Vajpayee is that whatever decisions or actions he takes, some group of people will be outraged.

Gujarat conflict in-depth

Key vote

Tense state

Background

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25 Feb 02 | South Asia
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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