By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 1:11 PM
NEW DELHI - A bomb blast in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, during the height of the daily sunset prayer ceremony Tuesday, injured at least 32 people and killed a 2-year-old child, officials said. Authorities said the blast was a terrorist attack.
In a four-page e-mail, a terrorist group that calls itself the Indian Mujaheddin took responsibility for the blast, writing that the bombing was in retaliation for a September court ruling that divided the Babri Masjid holy site between Muslims and Hindus.
"It's a terror strike," Home Secretary G.K. Pillai told CNN-IBN, adding that authorities were investigating the e-mail's authenticity.
Police were searching the area for more potential bombs.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked the nation to remain calm. "The blast is an attempt to weaken our resolve by evil forces of terrorism in which terrorists will not succeed," he said.
One unanswered question Tuesday night was whether the bombings were the work of homegrown Muslim extremists or militant groups based in Pakistan, who often say they launch attacks because of a list of grievances, including the 2002 Gujarat riots that targeted Muslims and the ongoing violence in the disputed region of Kashmir.
A spokesman 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 expressed anger that the holy Hindu city, often called the Hindu Mecca or Indian Jerusalem, was targeted.
Deep religious fissures have haunted modern India, a predominantly Hindu but secular nation of more than 1 billion people, of whom about 14 percent - or more than 140 million - are Muslims.
The explosion took place at 6:30 p.m. on the famous Sheetla Ghat, the centuries-old steps on the banks of the Ganges river where thousands of worshipers were taking part in the traditional aarti ceremony. During the ceremony, worshipers place lighted votive candles on leaves and launch them onto Hinduism's most revered river.
Eyewitnesses said the explosive device was hidden in a container on stairs leading to the ghat. Others said the stone steps were cracked in the blast. Television images showed milk splattered on the floors, chairs overturned and thousands of people running.
Tuesday is an auspicious day for prayers, and the site is popular with foreign tourists, especially during the winter tourist and wedding season. The steps also are near many rooftop cafes and narrow bylanes filled with busy jewelry and sari markets in one of the world's oldest cities. There were reports that several tourists were injured in a stampede and that several railings had collapsed.
The blast was the first since bombings in the western city of Pune in February, which killed 17 people and injured 53, and targeted areas frequented by foreigners, including a bakery, a Jewish outreach center and an international ashram.
That attack was the first since the deadly three-day siege in Mumbai in 2008 by 10 gunmen from Pakistan. The Mumbai rampage damaged already precarious relations with neighboring Pakistan.
Pillai said a "high alert across India" was issued earlier this week in anticipation of the Dec. 6 anniversary of the 1992 demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque, when Hindu mobs razed the prayer center that stood there. The mosque's demolition sparked nationwide rioting in which more than 2,000 people were killed.
Varanasi also suffered a series of bombings on March 7, 2006, when at least 28 people were killed and more than 100 others were injured. In that attack, the first blast targeted the Sankar Mochan Hanuman Temple, when hundreds of pilgrims were in the temple - also on a Tuesday. Another bomb was planted on a platform of the Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station, the main railway station in the city.
India blamed Pakistan for that attack, but that case remains unsolved.
There are some working metal detectors in the Hindu holy city, but police say security is extremely challenging as tens of thousands of people come to pray, bathe and cremate their dead by the river every day.
firstname.lastname@example.org Correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report