Indian soldiers patrol during a curfew imposed after deadly clashes between… (Rajesh Kumar Singh, Associated…)
NEW DELHI — It began in the smallest of ways, when a teenage Hindu girl complained to her family that she'd been verbally harassed by a Muslim boy.
The girl's brother and cousin allegedly responded by going to the teenage boy's home and shooting him to death. Reacting to that, members of his family and others in the Muslim community allegedly beat to death the brother and cousin.
From that spark in late August, violence in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has escalated, with the death toll reaching 31 on Monday as police locked down the area and the prime minister called for calm.
A curfew has been imposed in the Muzaffarnagar district where the dispute arose, about 13,000 security officers have been deployed and more than 100 people have been arrested on charges of inciting violence. Schools and shops were closed Monday after hundreds of villagers reportedly fled their homes Sunday or were evacuated by police.
After the initial confrontation and violence, passions were further inflamed when a video was circulated a few days later showing two men being lynched — in fact, the video was reportedly shot in Pakistan in 2010 — leading to growing violence in neighboring villages, massive demonstrations, armed street battles and inflammatory speeches by local politicians. Police said rumors spread by cellphone and social media made the situation worse.
"It began over a trivial issue and turned into communal violence," said Sharat Pradhan, a Lucknow-based independent political analyst. "This is a common way of settling scores in this part of Uttar Pradesh, which is known as the 'Wild West,' a place where human life is almost meaningless."
Dr. Ashok Agrawal, Muzaffarnagar's chief medical superintendent, said his staff had performed 18 postmortems, with more expected once the remaining corpses are identified.
"We are waiting for the police orders to decide what to do with the bodies," he said.
Video from the area showed rows of shops with shutters drawn as well as empty streets patrolled by army trucks.
Violence between Muslims and Hindus has been an unfortunate feature of Indian politics since the country's wrenching split with Pakistan in 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people from both communities were killed and millions were displaced.
The latest incidents underscore how sensitive relations remain between different ethnic and religious communities in India. About 80% of India's population of 1.2 billion is Hindu, and about 13% is Muslim.
There have been 451 cases of communal violence so far this year in seven Indian states most prone to Hindu-Muslim strife, according to the results of a study by the Cabinet secretary's office released Saturday, compared with 410 for all of 2012.
Uttar Pradesh saw some of the most violent religious clashes in recent memory in 1992 after a Hindu mob leveled the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The act of destruction led to weeks of rioting between Hindus and Muslims across India that reportedly left more than 2,000 people dead.
Several politicians who've tried to reach Muzaffarnagar — about 80 miles north of New Delhi — have been blocked by police who said their presence threatened to add to the tension. Indian political parties, which frequently stir up religious, ethnic and caste differences to win votes, blamed one another for the violence.
Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a leader of the Samajwadi Party, blamed the rival Bharatiya Janata Party. Samajwadi tends to rely on Muslim voters, while the BJP is strong among Hindus.
"A minor scuffle between two individuals has been blown into a riot simply because of being fueled by BJP leaders who have nothing else to bank on at a time when general elections are not far away," Yadav said. BJP leaders have denied fanning sectarian violence.
In a telephone call to Yadav, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged full federal support in stemming the bloodshed and called on the chief minister to take control of the situation and ensure that peace returned to Muzaffarnagar.
A general election is set for early next year. Uttar Pradesh is a hugely important state, and many political leaders are maneuvering for position.
"Because there's an election around the corner, politicians try and take advantage of it," Pradhan said. "It's a game, a blatant political game, with ordinary people held hostage."
Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.