Thu Nov 30, 2006
By Krittivas Mukherjee
MUMBAI (Reuters) – At least three people were killed in western India on Thursday when thousands of low-caste Hindus attacked police, torched trains and forced shops to shut after the desecration of a statue of their iconic leader.
The violence flared across several towns in Maharashtra state and its capital, Mumbai, with protesters blocking traffic and stoning and burning buses.
They said they were angry that a statue of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a low-caste Hindu who authored India's democratic constitution that prohibits caste-based discrimination, had been damaged on Wednesday in Uttar Pradesh state.
"We want police to arrest those who broke Baba Saheb's (Ambedkar's) statue. Otherwise, we will burn Maharashtra," a man shouted at reporters before being dragged away by police in Mumbai. Ambedkar was born in Maharashtra.
State authorities played down the violence, calling the rioting "sporadic incidents".
"Some people have reacted to the statue desecration episode, but now the situation is okay and people are cooperating," R.R. Patil, Maharashtra deputy chief minister, told reporters.
A Reuters photographer said he saw three commuter trains set on fire by irate mobs on the northern outskirts of Mumbai. But a railway official said only two coaches of the Deccan Queen express train had been destroyed in the fire.
Groups of protesters armed with bamboo sticks and stones roamed the streets of several towns across Maharashtra.
One person was killed when police opened fire to disperse a violent mob in Osmanabad town.
"Two other people were killed in related violence," P.S. Pasricha, Maharashtra's police chief, told a news conference. "We have made 1,500 preventive arrests across the state."
In Mumbai, huge groups carrying posters and banners were seen closing shops and clashing with police in several areas of the city. They also tried to stop suburban trains.
Witnesses said police used batons and fired tear gas shells to disperse unruly mobs in the city's Worli, Bandra and Chembur neighbourhoods, where some schools were closed.
Police denied the reports but added "several" people had been arrested. Curfews were imposed in some towns.
Low-caste Hindus or "dalits", the name for those called "untouchables" in the past, make up about 16 percent of India's 1.1 billion population, and are at the bottom of the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste hierarchy.
Though caste-based discrimination is banned, "dalits" are still often beaten or killed if they use a well or worship at a temple reserved for upper castes in the countryside.
In recent weeks, low-caste Hindus have been angry over the murder of four people from their community after they opposed the construction of a road through their farm by upper caste Hindus in eastern Maharashtra.
(Additional reporting by Punit Paranjpe, C.J. Kurrien and Nishant Kumar)