NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police in western India have arrested 140 people after two men were stabbed during violence between Hindus and Muslims that left more than a dozen injured and was triggered by an image posted on Facebook, officials said on Monday.
The violence in the state of Gujarat coincides with a visit to the United States by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is set to meet President Barack Obama later on Monday on a trip emphasizing India’s economic potential.
For almost a decade Modi was unwelcome in the United States after Washington revoked his visa in 2005 over accusations of religious intolerance stemming from riots three years earlier in Gujarat, when he was the state’s chief minister.
Gujarat’s government deployed riot police to control the clashes in the city of Vadodara over the weekend and appealed to religious leaders to intervene to curb them. Mobile telephone Internet and bulk text messaging has been suspended for four days as a precautionary step.
“We arrested 140 people on Sunday evening after two men were stabbed,” the city’s police commissioner, E. Radhakrishnan, said. “The injured are under medical observation and those who have been arrested are being interrogated.”
Trouble was sparked by an image widely distributed on social media website Facebook that some Muslims considered offensive to Islam, said a senior administration official in the city.
India has a dark history of religious violence, especially between the Hindu majority and Muslims, who account for more than 150 million people, making India the world’s third most populous Muslim nation.
Modi contested the 2014 general election from Vadodara but gave up the seat in favour of Varanasi, the Hindu holy city in north India, from which he had also contested.
At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died during a month of rioting in Gujarat in 2002. Critics say Modi did not do enough to stop the violence. Courts have found insufficient evidence to back that up.
A U.S. nonprofit filed a civil lawsuit on Thursday, timed to embarrass Modi during his trip to New York and Washington and seeking compensatory and punitive damages for alleged crimes against humanity over the 2002 riots.
Modi’s early training was in a movement that sees Indian culture as being primarily Hindu. Emboldened by his emphatic election victory in May, Hindu hardliners have been agitating across much of India against religious minorities.
The latest violence has marred celebrations of the Navratri festival that involves men and women in prayer, music and dance. It follows a campaign by radical Hindu groups to bar Muslims and other religious minorities from taking part in the traditionally tolerant festivities.
“The idea of banning Muslims from Hindu festivals has upset the minority but we are determined to keep the celebrations open to all,” Radhakrishnan said, adding that tension had begun to ebb.
Police in Vadodara this month arrested a Muslim cleric who had labelled Navratri a “festival of demons”.
Reporting by Rupam Jain Nair; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez