The western Indian state of Gujarat is on a state of high alert after the worst outbreak of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed in a decade.
Militant Hindus wave a flag of the hard line Bajrang Dal party in Bombay
The communal violence has so far claimed at least 200 lives since Wednesday, after a suspected Muslim mob torched a train carrying Hindus in the town of Godhra in Gujarat.
About 58 people, mostly women and children, aboard the Sabarmati Express were burnt alive.
Some 1,000 paramilitary troops were rushed into the city of Ahmedabad to quell the reprisals after an inflamed Hindu mob went on the rampage. The army has been given shoot-at-sight orders.
The mob was responding to calls by the hard-line Vishwa Hindu Parishad Party (VHP) for a "Gujarat-wide protest strike" to avenge the gruesome deaths of its activists on Wednesday, who were returning from the disputed holy site of Ayodhya.
The crowds targeted Muslim shops and establishments and torched residences and houses in predominantly Muslim localities. In a particularly grisly incident, a Hindu gang burned to death 27 Muslims in a shanty town in a suburb of Ahmedabad.
Police have their hands full with chasing arsonists and looters and a strict indefinite curfew was instated in several towns. A number of people have been killed in the police clamp down. Official reports suggest that at least 1,200 have been arrested with the communal violence in Gujarat.
The army has also fanned out in other Gujarati states of Baroda, Surat and Rajkot to curb violence. Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes arrived in Ahmedabad late on Thursday to monitor the situation and try to build confidence among the petrified residents.
Memories of Ayodhya violence evoke terror
The latest outbreak of communal violence has struck fear among Indians and rekindled horrific images of the nation-wide violence that was unleashed in 1992 after the destruction of the disputed Babri Masjid mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya by Hindu hard-liners armed with pickets and axes.
At that time more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The controversial area has now been cordoned off as long-winded judicial proceedings try to ascertain the status of the site.
Members of the VHP, the hard-line arm of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), insist that the Ayodhya site is the birthplace of the Lord Rama and they should be allowed to build a temple dedicated to one of Hinduism's principal deities.
Governing party caught in a tricky issue
The ruling BJP is caught in an embarrassing situation of remaining true to its professed secular colours and being pressurised by its radical members who want an India "only for Hindus".
A train set on fire by a mob in Godhra, India on Feb. 27, 2002. At least 58 people, including 14 children, were killed in the attack.
On the day of the Godhra train incident, Prime Minister Vajpayee assured opposition parties that the government would not allow any construction on or near the disputed site.
The moderate Vajpayee, who is in favour of a negotiated or judicial solution of the Ayodhya dispute, is often seen by fellow party members as being "too mild" in his approach to the issue.
Post-partition horrors rekindled
What has worried observers in the Godhra train burning incident is the premeditation of the suspected Muslim mob waiting at the train station with the intent of killing unsuspecting passengers.
For many Indians, especially those of the older generation, the scene could be reminiscent of the 1947 post-partition era, when India was divided, with the north western part becoming the present Pakistan. At that time the killing was carried out by Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. They were armed with knives, sticks and axes and slaughtered millions.
Another disturbing aspect is that the present communal violence is unfolding in the western state of Gujarat, one of the most affluent and progressive states of India with a high literacy rate.