Temple, Station Attacked in India

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

NEW DELHI, March 7 -- Bombs exploded in a crowded Hindu temple and a railway station in the holy city of Varanasi on Tuesday evening, killing at least 15 people and raising fears of retaliatory violence against India's minority Muslim population. Authorities appealed for calm and police officers in major cities were placed on high alert.

Even before the blasts, communal tensions had been rising in India. Angry Muslim protests against President Bush, who visited India last week, as well as against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper, have erupted into violence in several cities.

The first blast Tuesday ripped through the Sankat Mochan temple shortly after 6 p.m. as Hindu devotees gathered to make offerings to the monkey god Hanuman, Indian news agencies reported. Among the dead was a bridegroom who had come to seek the deity's blessings, according to the Press Trust of India news service. Tuesday evening is the traditional time for visiting the temple.

The second explosion came minutes later at the railway station. The blast left a foot-deep crater, shattered windows and splattered the station with blood and body parts, the Press Trust reported. Four more unexploded bombs were found at another site next to the Ganges River.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Navneet Sikera, senior superintendent of police in Varanasi, put the death toll at 15, with 60 injured. The Press Trust said 20 people had died, including 14 at the train station. [Five people died overnight of injuries, according to a police official cited by the Associated Press.]

Indian television footage of the bombed temple showed pools of blood and chunks of flesh amid scattered shoes and other debris. Injured survivors were carried to private vehicles and ambulances, and crowds of angry men waved their fists in the air. Many of the injured were said to be in critical condition.

Situated in the state of Uttar Pradesh about 400 miles east of New Delhi, the historic, densely packed city of Varanasi is sometimes called the "Hindu Jerusalem" to underscore its significance to the followers of India's dominant faith, who make up about 81 percent of the population. The city is a magnet for pilgrims who travel there for ritual baths in the Ganges River. And the most religious Hindus believe there is no better place to die than Varanasi, whose waterfront is lined with cremation grounds.

Authorities feared the bombings of such a sensitive site could trigger communal bloodletting. In 2002, reports of a Muslim attack on a train carrying Hindu nationalists in the state of Gujarat triggered rioting that left more than 1,000 people dead. Most of the dead in that episode were Muslims, who make up about 13 percent of India's billion-plus people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "has appealed for peace and calm," said his media adviser, Sanjay Baru. "He is constantly monitoring the situation."

Interior minister Shivraj Patil was en route to Varanasi Tuesday night, as was Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, which heads the country's governing coalition.

Spokesmen for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the opposition, blamed the bombings on what they said was the government's lax attitude toward terrorism, and called for a strike in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday.

One key unanswered question Tuesday night was whether the bombings were the work of homegrown Islamic extremists or militant groups based in Pakistan. In the past, the Pakistani government has used such groups as a weapon in its conflict with India over the divided Himalayan province of Kashmir.

In late 2001, an attack on India's Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan triggered a military standoff that raised fears of a nuclear exchange. The crisis was defused only under heavy U.S. and British diplomatic pressure.

India and Pakistan embarked on peace negotiations that have lowered tensions, but Indian officials have continued to express skepticism over claims by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, that he has ended state support for militant groups. Indian authorities have identified the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is based in Pakistan, as a primary suspect in the bombings of two New Delhi markets that killed 60 people Oct. 29. Musharraf has banned the group, although it continues to operate under a different name.

Some analysts saw a possible connection between the bombings and Hindu-Muslim clashes in the city of Lucknow on Friday that left four people dead. The clashes grew out of Muslim protests against Bush. Communal clashes also erupted in the coastal state of Goa.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company