The entire nation, from West Bengal to Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir to Kerala, was put on high alert tonight after at least two bombs exploded in quick succession at Varanasi’s famous Sankatmochan temple and the city cantonment railway station this evening, killing at least a dozen people and leaving another 30 injured. Unofficial figures put the death toll at 23.
Though no group has claimed responsibility for the blasts, the Centre, fearing a communal backlash, swung into action, issuing alerts and asking state governments to beef up security at key places of worship and government buildings.
Investigators said they were also looking at the possibility of a link between these explosions and the one at the Ahmedabad railway station (see adjoining story) on February 18.
President A P J Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh strongly condemned the blasts and sent out appeals for calm. Similar messages also went out from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister Shivraj Patil, both of whom left for Varanasi on a special aircraft late tonight. Patil was in constant touch with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The first blast took place around 6.30 pm inside the famous Sankatmochan temple adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath temple when it was teeming with devotees for the evening “aarti”. Four persons were killed on the spot.
“It was aarti time and some 4,000 devotees were present near the temple. The sound of explosions could be heard a kilometer away. The bomb was of high intensity,” a Varanasi police official said.
Minutes later, another blast took place at the cantonment railway station—there were reports of a second blast here as well—where the Delhi-bound Shivganga Express was waiting on platform number one.
Sankatmochan Temple, at Varanasi’s Durga Kund Road, is considered one of the three major temples of the city. The temple of Hanuman, built in early 1900s by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, is also known as a learning centre, especially in the field of cultural studies.
The blast at the railway station was so powerful that it left a deep crater on the platform. The area was splattered with blood and human remains.
The blast at the temple set off panic and led to a near stampede as people scrambled for cover. Two weddings were on in the complex when the explosion took place. People were seen ferrying the injured, including several elderly women, to the hospital. Rescue workers struggled in narrow lanes and bylanes to bring out the injured from the blast site.
UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, while condemning the blasts, called for peace and harmony. “These are testing times. Hindus and Muslims should unite to fight communal forces. People responsible for this will not be spared,” he said, announcing ex-gratia relief for the victims.
Meanwhile, the BJP blamed the blasts on the “soft” policies of the UPA government and the “minority appeasement politics” of the Mulayam Singh government.
BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Kalyan Singh will be in Varanasi tomorrow where the party has called for a bandh. The VHP has called for a bandh in Uttar Pradesh.
Chorus: ‘shock and outrage, time for unity, time for calm’
• President A P J Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the blasts and asked people across the nation to maintain calm • Congress president Sonia Gandhi: The incidents were mindless acts of terrorism • Leader of Opposition L K Advani: Atmosphere created in the past few days has strengthened fundamentalist forces...distressing spectacle in Lok Sabha yesterday when UPA and allies vying with one another on who can promote minorityism more...no one is going to benefit from this • Mahmood Madani, general secretary, Jamiat-ulema-i-Hind: Shameful incident, any violence especially in a place of worship is condemnable. We express our grief and condolence, appeal to all citizens to exercise restraint and maintain peace and unity. • Maulana Syed Nizamuddin, General Secretary, All India Muslim Personal Law Board: We condemn the senseless violence. We join all Muslim organisations to condemn the senseless violence. This has nothing to do with religion, it was a conspiracy by some forces for political gains. • CPM MP Nilotpal Basu said those who carried out the blasts had no religion and were only determined to create a rift in society.