An attack by a Muslim mob on a train in the Indian state of Gujrat threatens to spark yet another round of religious conflict and bloodshed around the country. The nation's Hindu nationalist government has appealed for calm and has reportedly given shoot-to-kill orders to maintain law and order.
The attack occurred yesterday morning as a train full of Hindu activists returned from a holy pilgrimage to the disputed site of Ayodhya, where both Hindus and Muslims share a dispute over the same piece of land.
The train arrived in the mainly Muslim town of Godhra in the Western state of Gujrat. Muslim townspeople were reportedly angered by the Hindu activists' religious chanting on the train and met them with sticks and cans of kerosene.
The blaze lit by the townspeople has claimed 55 lives thus far.
The attack appears to have been motivated by an ancient land dispute in the central Indian city of Ayodhya, which both Muslims and Hindus claim as their own.
The Hindu activists belonged to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which organized a movement in 1993 that culminated in the destruction of a 500-year-old Moghul mosque.
The radical World Hindu Council (VHP) claims the mosque occupies the same spot where the Hindu god Ram was born.
But the violence sparked in Gujrat may have created a crucial test for the central government, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP rose to power in part by supporting the Hindu cause at Ayodhya, and its chief supporters come from the ranks of the VHP.
Some experts say that if the government is going to maintain peace, it will have to appear even-handed and clamp down not just on Muslim mobs, but also on its own Hindu forces.
"This incident will have far reaching impacts.
The VHP will definitely use it to whip up the communal forces, which may lead to a major crisis," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a sociologist in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Political scientists say the BJP should handle this "explosive situation" with greatest caution. Riots following the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1993 claimed more than 6,000 lives, and observers caution that the train ambush could spark further violence.
That wave of violence, adds Dr. Chenoy, also had "small beginnings" such as the train fire.
After the fire yesterday, two people were stabbed and mobs tried to set two buses ablaze in Ahmedabad.
"The government have entered a moment of crisis, says Imtihas Ahmed, a political scientist. "If they relent on this, they would lose the legitimacy.... They are in real crisis now. Unless they handle it very carefully and sensitively, they may have to cut short its tenure."
"This government, like the past governments, is trying to appease the Muslims. We will not stop our agitation," says senior vice president of the VHP Acharya Giriraj Kishore.
The opposition parties had disrupted the parliament proceedings last week, expressing dissatisfaction over the government's actions to stop the "illegal activities"at the disputed site of Ayodhya by the VHP and Bajrang Dal, a militant wing of the RSS.
What poses the major threat to the existence of the BJP-led coalition government is that many of its 24 allies in the coalition took a stand against the party stand in the temple construction issue.
The defeat for the party in the Assembly elections in four state, including the most populous state Uttar Pradesh have already weaken the government and the party.
So it took no time for the BJP leaders in the government and the party have given assurance to the opposition and the allies that no "activities" would be allowed at the site. However, the Gujarat incident would invite new troubles for the party.