Hindu-Sikh violence erupted in the Indian capital today, prompting a quick decision to deploy Army troops in an effort to prevent the toll from surpassing the five killed and 50 injured in rioting and police actions.
It was the first large-scale outbreak of sectarian fighting in Delhi since about 2,700 people, most of them Sikhs, were killed in mob violence after the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984.
Today's outburst followed the killing yesterday of 14 Hindus, apparently by Sikh militants, on a bus in rural Punjab. Commissioner Ved Marwah said police were on the alert today, but the outbursts started in "too many places, too fast."
The incidents raised fears of a widening Hindu backlash against Sikh violence and terrorism in Punjab. In recent weeks the militant Sikh campaign for a homeland has turned from its earlier focus on the government and intra-Sikh rivalries to involve the state's Hindu minority.
While the riots today were confined to a volatile section of the western part of the capital region, many shopkeepers across the city closed their stores.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called the political affairs committee of the Cabinet into emergency session to hear a report from Home Minister Buta Singh, who had gone to the riot-torn areas.
The Gandhi government has been laboring to prevent the violence from spreading beyond the predominantly Sikh Punjab, and today's outbreak in the capital brought quick promises from the government to crack down on lawlessness.
Home Minister Singh, who has responsibility for internal security and police mattters, said the bus shootings were designed to create panic and chaos in Punjab and other areas, and he was determined not to allow them to succeed.
The government was sharply criticized for acting too slowly to deploy trooops after the assassination of Gandhi's mother, and today's quick response, primarily a march through the troubled area by Army units, was seen as a resolve to move quickly to dampen tensions.
The Tilak Nagar area west of Delhi, the scene of most of today's rioting, is a mixed section of Sikhs and Hindus, much like many parts of Punjab.
In one section of Tilak Nagar, a Sikh temple 150 feet from a Hindu temple was ransacked and its holy book burned by a crowd of 2,000 to 2,500 Hindus, who had just burned a Sikh professor's house and a store adjacent to the temple.
According to police and witnesses, the trouble began early this morning, when crowds gathered to protest yesterday's shootings in Punjab. Police tried to break up the gathering with tear gas and baton charges, but the crowds split into smaller groups that clashed with groups of Sikhs armed with swords.
The police then opened fire on the crowd, and three of the deaths were from police gunfire, according to Commissioner Marwah. One person died of stab wounds.
Marwah said police fired at least 20 rounds in six different places, wounding several people in addition to the three killed. In all, authorities reported 50 persons injured, five of them seriously.
Police and fire officials reported that a number of shops, at least four cars and a dozen motorcycles were burned during the day's violence. Several of the cars and shops continued to smoulder late in the afternoon as more than 600 police and paramilitary force members, along with at last a symbolic number of Army troops, patrolled the streets.
In contrast to the violence after the Gandhi assassination, when Sikhs were heavily outnumbered and on the run throughout the city, witnesses today said the Sikhs seemed prepared to stand up to atacking Hindu mobs. Television showed a number of Sikhs armed with swords and other weapons among the stone-throwing crowds.
Police reported several incidents of gunfire, but there was no indication who was doing the shooting.
While Tilak Nagar in the western portion of the city was the main area of action today, police reported violence in at least nine other neighborhoods.
In Punjab, a statewide strike called by major political parties to protest yesterday's killings brought normal life to a halt, according to news agency reports. Twelve of the 14 persons killed were cremated in a mass funeral today.