Bombay bombing: more religious strife?

Two car bombings in India's financial capital Monday prompted concern over Muslim-Hindu relations.

Two car bombs exploded in the heart of India's financial capital Monday raising concern that a cycle of violence between Muslim and Hindu extremists might be flaring up again.

The bombings were the worst attack in Bombay (Mumbai) since 1993, when a series of bombings killed 260 people. At least 44 people were killed Monday and nearly 150 injured when two almost simultaneous explosions took place - one near the Gateway of India, a popular foreign tourist attraction, and the second in the densely packed streets of Zaveri Bazaar, Bombay's gold and diamond district.

"There are many jihadi groups out, let loose by the enemy country," said Ranjit Sharma, a Bombay police commissioner. The "enemy country" was a clear reference to Pakistan, India's longtime rival. Such an accusation could threaten to increase tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistani officials immediately condemned the attack and expressed sympathy for the families of victims.

No group had claimed responsibility for the attacks at press time. But Mr. Sharma specifically mentioned the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, a militant students' group outlawed in September 2001, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, one of more than a dozen Islamic rebel groups fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir since 1989, seeking independence for the divided Himalayan province or its merger with Muslim dominated Pakistan.

Indian police blame Muslim extremists for a a series of small bombings in the Bombay suburbs since December.

India's Home Minister Shankar Singh said Monday's explosions were different from the earlier ones because of the intensity of the blasts and their locations in the heart of Bombay.

Initial speculation about the the origin of the blasts prompted Javed Anand, a human rights activist and coeditor of Communalism Combat, a Bombay newspaper, to predict that relations between Muslims and Hindus will sour in the city. "It is going to poison the body politic, and that's not good for the Muslims," he says.

But Hasan Kamaal, a columnist at Inquilab, a left-leaning Urdu language daily in Bombay, disagrees. "Muslims in Bombay are very agitated against this heinous crime," he says.

The 1993 Bombay bombings, say police, were in response to the 1992 destruction of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu mobs, and to avenge Muslim deaths in the rioting that followed. Mr. Kamaal says the political atmosphere in the city today isn't the same. "At that time, there was an instant reaction and a lot of bitterness. I don't sense that now," he says.

Police said a bomb hidden in the trunk of a taxi went off in Zaveri Bazaar at 12:50 p.m. and another bomb, also in a taxi, was detonated at 1:05 p.m. outside the Taj Mahal hotel, near the Gateway of India monument.

The hotel, a grand Victorian building, is one of Bombay's most famous landmarks and is frequented by American and European tourists. While the police have not identified any bodies, Ravi Dubey, a spokesman for the Taj Hotel says that no guests were hurt in the explosion.

Zaveri Bazaar is heavily populated by Bombay's Hindu Gujarati community which largely runs the jewelry trade in Bombay.

Well-aware of the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in the western state of Gujarat which claimed at least 1,000 lives last year, the state government immediately placed the state's capital Ahmedabad on high alert and security was tightened all over Gujarat with police throwing up checkpoints on highways leading in and out of the state.

Sushil Kumar Shinde, Maharashtra's chief minister, said the five of the seven Bombay bomb attacks in the last six months took place in Gujarati dominated areas of Mumbai leading to further speculation that these attacks could be organized by Muslim groups in retaliation to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

Speculation as to the rationale behind Monday's Bombay bombing also ranged from Al Qaeda hitting "soft targets" to Muslim extremists reacting to a new report released about the Ayodhya temple.

Indian government archeologists have been excavating the site of the 528-year- old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya which was demolished in 1993. Monday, they reported that they had found evidence of a huge structure with features associated with Hindu temples, validating claims that the mosque was built over the ruins of a temple.

But P.K. Ravindranath, former press secretary to the chief minister of Maharashtra, who has written extensively on communal tensions here, says there just wasn't enough time to plan such an attack in response to the Ayodhya report.

The Bombay blasts follow an easing in tension between Pakistan and India, which came close to war last year following a December 2001 attack on India's federal parliament.

India blamed that and other attacks on Pakistan-based militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state.

Dan Morrison contributed to this report from India. Material from the wire services was also used.

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