Police officials inspect a damaged vehicle at the site of clashes the previous day in Dhule district in Maharashtra state on January 7, 2013. – Photo by AFP

MUMBAI: A row over an unpaid restaurant bill in a western Indian city escalated into a riot between Hindus and Muslims that left four people dead and 175 injured, police said on Monday.

The unrest broke out in Dhule in Maharashtra state on Sunday, special inspector general Deven Bharti told AFP. Four rioters were killed by police firing while 113 policemen were among the injured, he said.

Bharti said investigations were still under way, but it appeared that a quarrel over a restaurant bill had provoked a mass brawl that left shops smashed, motorbikes burned and glass strewn across the streets.

Previous riots between Hindus and Muslims in Dhule, which has a population of about 400,000 and is located 330 kilometres (205 miles) from Mumbai, broke out in October 2008, leaving 10 dead.

“The restaurant owner was from one community and the customer from the other,” Bharti explained, declining to name the parties involved.

“The customer went and took 50 people from his community and assaulted the restaurant owner, and people from the owner's community also gathered and started arsoning and rioting,” he said.

Bharti said the police had used sticks, tear gas and plastic bullets before resorting to live ammunition to quell the trouble.

The area was put under a curfew that continued on Monday and was “peaceful and under control”, he added.

Hindus make up about 80 per cent of India's population, while some 13 per cent are Muslim.

Sporadic, isolated clashes between the two groups still break out 65 years after the Indian subcontinent was carved into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and secular yet Hindu-majority India after the end of British rule.

India saw mass riots between Hindus and Muslims 20 years ago -- triggered when Hindu zealots demolished a mosque in the town of Ayodhya -- that left more than 2,000 dead, mostly Muslims.

A decade later another 2,000 people died in riots between the two groups in Gujarat state.


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