India on Alert after Bomb Blasts
By Sharat Pradhan
VARANASI, India (Reuters) – Armed police mounted vigil at temples and public places across India on Wednesday and leaders appealed for calm as Hindu groups called for a strike in a northern state to protest against bomb blasts that killed 15.
Tuesday’s blasts in Varanasi, one of the holiest pilgrimage centers for the country’s majority Hindus, also wounded dozens of people and came barely a week before Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
It sparked fears of sectarian violence as some police officers suspected the attack to be the work of Islamist militants fighting against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
But there were no reports of trouble, police said.
"The city is peaceful. We have taken all precautions. There have been no reports of any untoward incidents," said K.L. Meena, Varanasi’s inspector-general of police.
"There have been no arrests so far and police parties are conducting raids at various places since last night," he said.
Meena said there were only two bomb blasts and not three as police had earlier said.
The first bomb went off in the packed, centuries-old Sankat Mochan temple where hundreds of devotees of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman had gathered for evening prayers.
The second exploded at the city’s cantonment railway station. Police had said on Tuesday that two bombs exploded at the station.
Yashpal Singh, the police chief of Uttar Pradesh state, where Varanasi is located, said he suspected the hand of Pakistan-based Islamist militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Indian TV channels said two Lashkar militants were shot dead overnight by police in New Delhi and another Lashkar man was killed in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, but it was not known if they were connected to the Varanasi blasts.
Lashkar, which is outlawed in Pakistan, has been blamed for several violent attacks across India in the past, including one on another Hindu holy site in Uttar Pradesh last year.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged people to remain calm after the blasts, but Hindu groups allied to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party called for a general strike in the state on Wednesday to protest against the blasts.
Authorities said they had shut down schools and colleges as a precaution, but a Reuters reporter said traffic on the streets of the ancient city appeared normal.
"People are moving around. Puja (worship) is going on in the temples. There is no problem now," said 65-year-old housewife Prem Lata.
Temple-studded Varanasi, 670 km (415 miles) southeast of the capital New Delhi, is on the banks of the holy Ganges river.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges and the ashes immersed in the river ensures release from the cycle of rebirth. Many elderly and ill people come to the city if they believe they are close to death.
(Additional reporting by Surojit Gupta in NEW DELHI)