By Sharat Pradhan
LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - India's political parties blamed each other for religious riots that killed at least 31 people and forced hundreds to flee their homes this weekend, in a sign of rising tension between Hindus and Muslims ahead of a general election due by May.
Police evacuated Hindu and Muslim villagers on Monday in the district of Muzaffarnagar, 130 km (80 miles) northeast of New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, at the center of some of the worst communal violence in years.
Some locals, fearful after attackers beat children and burned property, hid in fields and police stations, or fled in ox carts and tractors on Sunday. State security official Kamal Saxena said 31 people were killed, with some fighting also breaking out in a neighboring district.
"We are on a high alert and curfew will remain in parts of Muzaffarnagar city, while security forces are doing regular rounds in the affected villages," said deputy police chief Arun Kumar.
Violence between Muslims and Hindus has been a defining feature of Indian politics since the separation of Pakistan in 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced.
Religion and caste violence plays a central role in politics in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest states with a population larger than that of Russia. Fanning the tension often brings political gain to parties that claim to protect different religious and caste groups from one another.
Professor Sudha Pai, an expert on Uttar Pradesh politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the Jat Hindu caste community in Muzaffarnagar that was involved in the weekend violence did not have a history of tension with Muslims.
"On the whole, these communities have lived side by side. This has been fomented. There is no doubt about it," Pai said.
Several politicians including a national cabinet minister and a senior opposition leader tried to reach Muzaffarnagar on Monday but were detained by police who said their presence could stir up more violence.
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said 451 cases of communal violence were registered in the first eight months of this year in India, up from 410 in the whole of 2012 and that tensions were expected to escalate in the build-up to elections.
The situation had calmed by Monday thanks to a big mobilization of police and soldiers, officials said. Hundreds of soldiers patrolled otherwise deserted streets in Muzaffarnagar.
Shinde accused Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of failing to heed warnings before the weekend, and said the state government was not doing enough to stop such incidents.
Yadav, whose Samajwadi party relies heavily on Muslim votes, blamed the troubles on the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is on a major drive to win more votes in the state that contributes most seats to parliament.
"A minor scuffle between two individuals has been blown into a riot simply because of being fuelled by BJP leaders ... who have nothing else to bank on at a time when general elections are not far away," Yadav said.
State police registered cases against six local politicians for allegedly giving inflammatory speeches at a meeting on Saturday. Some reports said the violence broke out when a mob attacked a vehicle after the meeting. Three of the politicians were from the BJP and one from the Congress party, which heads the national coalition government.
One high profile BJP politician, Subramanian Swamy, faced criticism on Monday for a post on Twitter in which he called the Jat caste "fierce fighters" whose ancestors had crushed Islamic rulers.
The BJP denies fanning communal tension.
In 1992, 2,000 people were killed in riots after the demolition of a 16th century mosque built near a sacred Hindu site in the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya.
Hindu political mobilization around that conflict thrust the BJP onto the national stage and played a role in bringing it to power in the late 1990s.
(Additional reporting by Shyamantha Asokan; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Ross Colvin and Robin Pomeroy)