| A victim on a stretcher in a hospital in Gandhinagar. (Reuters)
Gandhinagar, Sept. 24: Terror took a temple near the Sabarmati river as the Valley of violence voted today.
Gujarat came full circle from Godhra to Gandhinagar with a group of gunmen opening fire on devotees before the evening aarti at the Swaminarayan temple in the state capital, killing 24 people. Unconfirmed reports put the toll at 44.
The threat of a new cycle of violence hung in the night air as the militants continued to be holed up inside Gandhinagar’s most majestic monument and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad called a Bharat bandh on Thursday.
Fifty National Security Guard commandos were flown in from Delhi and were reported to have entered the 23-acre complex (picture above) opposite chief minister Narendra Modi’s house. The temple was being flooded with lights for what appeared to be preparation for a raid.
The nation was put on high alert. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is cutting short his visit to the Maldives and is expected back in New Delhi tomorrow morning.
Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who reached Gandhinagar — his parliamentary seat — tonight, said the gunmen holed up inside numbered between two and four.
Police and security forces have surrounded the complex. An explosion was heard around 8.20 pm as the attackers were trying to flee, almost four hours after they drove to the temple in an ambassador.
Armed with AK-47 rifles, three gunmen in military fatigues had jumped over the VIP gate into the complex and opened fire. Two others, posing as visitors, had tried to enter through the main gate. Asked to deposit their bags with the security staff at the gate, they lobbed hand grenades.
Advani had, however, denied that the attackers were in military fatigues.
About 600 worshippers, many of them tourists, were inside the imposing, pink sandstone temple of the wealthy Swaminarayan sect when the gunmen struck at 4.30 pm. After a long gunbattle between the attackers and the securitymen, many were rescued. Over 100 still remained trapped inside the multi-media auditorium, but they appeared to be safe.
Advani said 500 devotees had been evacuated and between 25 and 30 were believed to be trapped inside. He, however, admitted that the figures could not be confirmed.
A state intelligence police inspector, K.K. Mysorewala, said the attack had stoked fears of communal unrest in Ahmedabad, scene of the recent riots, the worst in over a decade. “There is tension and fear in Ahmedabad. People are scared that something could happen at night,” he said.
The VHP has called a Bharat bandh on Thursday. “The VHP and Bajrang Dal have decided to observe Bharat bandh against the attack and jihadi terrorism. Only health services would be exempted,” VHP secretary and Bajrang Dal in-charge Surendra Jain said.
The Gujarat riots had started on the day of another Bharat bandh, also called by the VHP in protest against the Godhra carnage.
Children were crying as makeshift stretchers were arranged to carry the wounded to hospitals.
“I heard a loud noise and gunshots. I didn’t know what was happening. Then we were told by the temple trustees to get inside a room,” said Gurumukh Palwani, 40, who managed to get out with his two children. “Thank God I am alive,” he said, tears running down his cheeks.
“I am fortunate to be alive today,” echoed 16-year-old Priti Nahata, another survivor.
Police have sealed all entrances to the temple and blocked the approach roads. Vehicles taking a highway that runs close to the complex are being checked.
The attack comes in the middle of Modi’s Gaurav Yatra, during which he has repeatedly taken swipes at the minority community. Three intelligence officials were transferred last week after they warned, in a report to the home department, that the chief minister’s words could inflame communal passions.
Modi today joined the chorus for peace. “I appeal for peace and harmony from the people of the state,” he said, echoing President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vajpayee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Advani and countless political and religious leaders. The Congress is holding a Gujarat bandh tomorrow.
The Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari condemned the attack, terming it “anti-Islamic”, but said Modi’s Gaurav Yatra could have provoked it.
“Islam does not permit killing of innocent civilians. I appeal to Muslims and our Hindu brethren to join hands to wipe out terrorism from the country’s soil,” he said.
A group of prominent Islamic scholars at Aligarh Muslim University said the attack appeared to be part of a “sinister conspiracy” to destabilise the country. Killing of innocent persons “is totally un-Islamic and can in no circumstances be justified”, they said in a statement.
Amid the appeals for peace, the VHP struck a jarring note, warning of “appropriate action” if the culprits were not punished. “If the government fails to control these elements, then the Hindus will take appropriate action,” VHP leader Vyankatesh Abdev said.