Inside, Miss World finalists will parade with elephants; outside protesters threaten to set themselves alight

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Thousands of security guards have been recruited in an attempt to prevent disruption of tonight's Miss World contest in Bangalore by angry feminists, some of whom are threatening to set fire to themselves.

Police are hunting for KN Shashikala, the Bengali karate black-belt who started the controversy three months ago when she organised students into a group of "vigilant women against indecent exposure", and filed a petition to ban the contest. When Reita Faria won for India in 1966 and Ashwariya Rai triumphed two years ago, there were no protests. But Ms Shashikala's agitation spurred the organisers into retreat, and the swimsuit section was diverted to the Seychelles. The mathematics graduate, who is in her twenties, vanished yesterday.

Earlier this week, a 25-year-old student from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, torched himself to death in protest against the contest, held last year in Sun City, South Africa. Police also found four bombs planted at contest sites.

Unfazed, Judge RP Sethi ruled that the pageant could continue, providing that no indecent exposure, nudity, or obscenity takes place. A chorus line of 16 elephants will caper alongside the 89 leggy semi-finalists as the show is broadcast live to 115 nations.

Unseasonable rain threatens to make both the competition and the fiery protest fizzle outs. Ticket sales have not helped. The Sultan of Brunei ordered 200 tickets for the grand finale, but nearly half of the cheaper seats remain unsold at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. A crowd of just 10,000 is expected along with the mob which will gather outside for the feminists' mock-pageant.

Nearby loom enormous 20ft cardboard cut-outs of the contest's main organiser, the Hindi star Amitabh Bachchan. He is naked, with his hands cupping his genitals. One of the judges, the actor Oliver Reed, seemed quite happy to be left off.

Julia Morley, who runs the contest with her husband, said: "We make money on beauty and spend it on the ugly face of the world. That's our purpose and protests will not deter us."

Some Indians view the contest as a Trojan horse for the multi-nationals who have been eyeing India's burgeoning middle-class as an untapped market. And although feminists resent the display of flesh, more traditional women decry the imposition of Western ideals of beauty on an ancient culture.

India has sent participants to beauty pageants for the past 30 years, and the nation was almost smug with self-congratulation in 1994 when it won Miss Universe and Miss World. The latter, Ashwariya Rai, is too yellow to brave the protesters and judge tonight's pageant. But she has got a valid medical excuse: she is suffering from jaundice.