Violence Continues in India’s Deadliest Elections, 85 Dead
NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Hindus and Muslims battled over sectarian issues and vote irregularities in four northern towns Tuesday as the toll rose in the deadliest elections in India’s 44-year history as an independent nation.
At least 85 people have been killed since voting began Monday, officials and news reports said. The figures includes 11 people killed Tuesday, and brings the death toll to 185 since the campaign started a month ago.
Faced with violence and ballot fraud, the Election Commission invalidated results from five of the 204 districts where voting was held. New voting was ordered later this week in 64 other districts.
It is the first time since 1980 that elections to entire parliamentary districts have been thrown out.
Army troops were called out to control riots in the towns of Meerut, Varanasi, Kanpur and Deoband, Indian news agencies reported Tuesday. The towns are in Uttar Pradesh state, where three of the five districts with invalidated results are located.
Uttar Pradesh is the most populous of India’s 25 states. Its 85 seats in the 543-member Parliament mean it could swing the outcome of the election. Three of the five districts where election results were invalidated also fall in the state. The other two are in neighboring Bihar.
The two states are the main battle grounds for former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Party, the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal Party of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh. The long-governing Congress Party is trying to stage a comeback from its 1989 election defeat.
Violence erupted Monday after rival parties tried to stuff ballot boxes. Meerut, an industrial town 50 miles northeast of New Delhi, was the worst hit. At least 23 people were killed in a riot after a Hindu and a Muslim candidate accused each other Monday of vote-rigging.
Three people were killed when fighting resumed Tuesday despite an indefinite curfew and orders to shoot violators on sight, Press Trust of India reported.
Gandhi’s Congress Party and Singh’s Janata Dal blamed much of the violence on the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which campaigned on a platform of Hindu assertiveness.
″In the pursuit of votes, the BJP has created an atmosphere in which religious frenzy masquerades as nationalism and bigotry passes off as patriotism,″ said Congress spokesman Pranab Mukherjee.
The Janata Dal made similar charges.
The Bharatiya Janata Party denied the accusations. Party spokesman J.P. Mathur said the violence was organized by rivals and was aimed at terrorizing party workers.
The party, expected to finish a strong second to the Congress Party in the elections, wants to make Hinduism officially dominant in this secular nation. At least 82 percent of India’s 840 million people are Hindu. Muslims make up 12 percent and the rest comprise Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.
It is a striking departure from the middle-of-the-road secular politics of most Indian political parties. It would also overturn the principles set by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his mentor, Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Polls predict Singh’s Janata Dal Party will finish third. Singh has been promoting reforms, including a controversial job reservation program for lower-caste Hindus. The plan was shelved last year after more than 150 people died in riots and protest suicides.
A winning party, or coalition of parties, needs 252 seats for a parliamentary majority. Of the 543 seats in the policy-making Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, elections for 27 districts will be held next month in the insurrection-torn states of Punjab and Assam.
Polling has been indefinitely postponed for six seats in Jammu and Kashmir state, scene of a violent independence struggle by Muslim separatists.
In addition to the five districts invalidated Tuesday, three elections were canceled because of the deaths of candidates. The parliament will have only 252 members when it meets June 5, because new voting in the invalidated districts cannot be held before then.