Communal violence spread in Orissa on Thursday with fresh incidents of mobs burning churches and homes, adding to the tensions in the state that has seen at least 11 people being killed in revenge for the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader last week.
The situation was so volatile that Minister of State for Home Sri Prakash Jaiswal and other Congress leaders, who arrived in Bhubaneswar to visit riot hit areas, were told by the state government that they could not do so and returned to New Delhi.
Though the volatile Kandhamal district continued to be the worst hit with mobs defying curfew, blocking roads and attacking churches even after shoot-at-sight orders, there were reports of churches and homes being attacked from other parts of the state too.
Police said trouble had spread to new areas, including the western district of Bolangir and the coastal district of Kendrapada.
No details were available but officials said curfew had been clamped in Kendrapada town and security intensified in Bolangir.
"There have been stray incidents of violence in Kandhamal. We have also received reports of people burning a church in the district of Bolangir," said Director General of Police Gopal Chandra Nanda, adding that more than 3,000 policemen had been deployed.
"We are hopeful normalcy would return in a week," Nanda told IANS while describing the situation as "under control".
Police have registered at least 70 cases in different police stations related to the communal violence and 54 people have been arrested, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik informed the state assembly.
The state has been on the boil since Saturday evening when Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a member of the VHP's central advisory committee, and four others were killed by suspected Maoist guerrillas at his Jalespata ashram in Kandhamal.
As violence raged in Kandhamal, particularly in isolated hamlets, despite orders to the police to shoot at sight anybody defying curfew and indulging in violence, police and paramilitary forces marched through several town on Thursday.
Curfew has been clamped in all towns of the district and is still in force, said revenue divisional commissioner Satyabrata Sahu.
On Monday, the VHP had called for a statewide shutdown. Since then, 11 people have been killed in the state, 10 in Kandhamal and a woman in Bargarh district who was burnt when the crowds attacked an orphanage. Local newspapers and television channels, however, put the toll at 17.
Saraswati was leading a campaign against cow slaughter and religious conversion in the communally sensitive Kandhamal district - which with a population of around 600,000 including 150,000 Christians has witnessed numerous clashes between Hindus and Christians in the past.
Radical Hindu groups in the state blamed Christians for the crime and alleged that Christians killed Saraswati because he was opposing religious conversion. Christian organisations deny these allegations.
Saraswati's supporters have been holding protests since Saturday night, blocking trains and vehicles.
Orissa is not new to communal violence between Hindus and Christians.
On Jan 22, 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, 10-year-old Philip and six-year-old Timothy, were burnt alive by a Hindu radical mob in their vehicle in Keonjhar district.