At least 38 people died and over 100 were injured in three explosions in Muslim-dominated Malegaon, 300 km from Mumbai, on Friday. It was the first instance of serial bombings specifically targeting Muslims in Maharashtra.
The bombs went off between 1.46 pm and 1.50 pm, one at a town square and two outside the Bada Kabrastan mosque-cum-graveyard. Terror-stricken men and boys poured out of the mosque, stumbling over corpses in their hurry to get away. "Arre bhago mat, bhago mat (Don’t run, don’t run)," onlookers screamed.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said two bombs were rigged to bicycles. "We found packets with the explosives attached to these bicycles," he said.
Eyewitnesses said up to 2,500 worshippers had gathered for prayers on Shab-e-bara'at — 'Night of Salvation' — when Muslims pray for the dead, ask forgiveness for sins and feed the hungry and the poor. Some of the dead were beggars who had gathered at the mosque.
"I was standing at a shop outside the mosque after I finished my prayers, when I heard loud explosions. Suddenly everything was covered under a blanket of smoke," said Muzambir Sheikh, an eyewitness.
With no ambulances around, the injured were loaded on handcarts and taken to a 32-bed local hospital which was quickly overwhelmed. Many injured were taken to clinics in the Hindu part of town.
And the volunteers who came to help included those from the Bajrang Dal and the BJP. Some of the injured were taken to the nearest big town, Nashik, a three-hour drive away, and a few to Mumbai.
Fearful, confused and angry, mobs helped victims, attacked a police station and burned a fire tender and a police vehicle. Islamic preachers from the town — known for its history of communal riots — then stepped in to calm the crowds.
"Yeh apne desh ki gaadi hai, yeh aapke paise se kharidi hai (These vehicles belong to your country, they have been bought with your money)," a maulana appealed over the mosque's loudspeakers, asking people to stop attacks on the few police vehicles that had reached the blast site.
In Mumbai, Director General of Police Parvinder Singh Pasricha said: "There were an adequate number of policemen there, that's how we quickly gained control of the situation." He said police opened fire to quell attacks. A curfew was clamped in Malegaon.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister RR Patil, who visited the town, said: "Police suspect that some more devices could be hidden there, and the area will be searched for any explosives."
In Mumbai, BJP leader and former deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde said Malegaon was a hotbed of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) and terrorists had gained a foothold there. "After the blasts in Mumbai, there was peace. We hope that Malegaon too will keep its peace," he said. In July, a series of attacks on Mumbai's commuter trains had left more than 200 people dead.
Deshmukh announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to the kin of the dead and Rs 50,000 to the injured. The cost of medical expenses of the injured would be borne by the state government, he said.
At least 70 per cent of the five lakh inhabitants of Malegaon are Muslim.
The last major incident of religious violence in town took place in 2001 after Osama bin Laden's photo was carried in a procession.