India deployed troops to its remote northeastern state of Assam on Saturday after the number of Muslims gunned down in three days of ethic violence rose to 31, police said. The killings have been blamed on tribal rebels who resent immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The unrest coincides with month-long parliamentary elections, and has heightened ethnic and religious divisions in India ahead of an expected win by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Security forces in Assam on Saturday discovered the bodies of nine people – six of them women and children – with bullet wounds. Authorities alleged that Bodo tribesmen were responsible for the killings, and that they were carried out as punishment for Muslim settlers opposing political candidates favored by the Bodo.
Bodo people are followers of the local Bathouist religion.
"We are scared to live in our village, unless security is provided by the government," said Anwar Islam, a Muslim who had come to buy food in Barama, a town about 20 miles from the villages in the Baksa district where the violence broke out Thursday and Friday.
He said men armed with rifles had come to his village of Masalpur on bicycles, and had fired indiscriminately and set huts on fire.
Bodo representatives say many of the Muslims in Assam are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who encroach on ancestral Bodo lands. In 2012, clashes between the two groups killed dozens of people and caused 400,000 others to flee their homes.
In addition to the most recent violence, Assam has a long history of sectarian strife, as well as armed groups fighting for greater autonomy or secession from India.
Political candidates, including the BJP's Narendra Modi, the front-runner for the prime minister’s office, have been calling for tighter border controls.
On Saturday, the ruling Congress party blamed Modi for using divisive rhetoric. "Modi is a model of dividing India," said Law Minister Kapil Sibal.
Modi said last week that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the nearby state of West Bengal should have their "bags packed" in case he came to power. He also accused the state government of being too soft.
"Modi should have been more responsible in his utterances," said Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury, a political science professor at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
"His words can be very damaging since, even if we consider that Bangladeshis are living here illegally, there is a question of human rights too."
But the BJP said it was the responsibility of the Congress party that governs the state to ensure law and order, and to crack down on armed groups.
India's election voting concludes on May 12. Results are due to be announced on May 16.
Modi’s campaign is tainted by accusations that he turned a blind eye to, or even encouraged, anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 in Gujarat, the state he has governed for 13 years. More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed during those attacks.
Modi has rarely spoken of the 2002 violence, but a New York Times correspondent who spoke with him about the episode recalled recently that his primary regret during the violence was that he could have better handled the international media.
Meanwhile, soldiers in convoys of trucks mounted with rifles were patrolling on Saturday in Baksa district, where some of the recent attacks against Muslims took place.
Bodies covered with white sheets were laid out in a row at a police outpost on the edge of Barama for identification by relatives.
Most Muslims were staying together in big groups, villagers visiting the market in Barama said. Security forces found three children hiding in forests near the border with China.
In the elections, the Bodo region faces what residents say is a tight race between a Bodo and a non-tribal candidate. A policeman was killed during the voting when the region went to the polls on April 24.
Al Jazeera and Reuters