India set for violence after Hindus target Muslim tomb

A chill of fear will descend over India this weekend, of a type many hoped they had felt for the last time. Tight security will be mounted around a little visited tourist site: the 17th century tomb of a Muslim general, because Hindu extremists announced yesterday that on Sunday they will surround the tomb and tear it down.

A chill of fear will descend over India this weekend, of a type many hoped they had felt for the last time. Tight security will be mounted around a little visited tourist site: the 17th century tomb of a Muslim general, because Hindu extremists announced yesterday that on Sunday they will surround the tomb and tear it down.

The significance is lost on no one in India - it is a direct and deliberate echo of the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists armed with iron bars and spades. That set off the worst religious violence since partition. At least 3,000 people were killed.

Just two years ago, it happened again, when the open wound over Ayodhya sparked a new round of massacres in Gujarat, in which at least 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

That is why the police say they are determined to prevent any damage to the tomb at Mahabaleshwar, in the Western Ghats. The campaign organisers say 30,000 people will arrive to demolish the tomb of Afzal Khan, the Muslim general, tomorrow.

Those behind the campaign say they want to destroy the tomb because it lies close to the fort of Shivaji, a 17th century Hindu warrior whom Afzal Khan tried to kill. Shivaji, who won many victories against the Muslim rulers of much of India at the time, has assumed mythic status for many Hindus, especially those on the far right, who believe that India should be ruled as a pure Hindu state, and that religious minorities should be put in their place.

Shivaji's killing of Afzal Khan and the destruction of the Babri mosque have long been twin symbols of the Hindu far right. Intellectuals on the left have accused the extremists of deliberately trying to incite violent reactions from India's Muslim minority, so they can respond with pogroms such as the Gujarat massacres of 2002.

Leading the calls for the tomb to be torn down is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the far-right Hindu party behind the demolition of the Babri mosque. "Afzal Khan is an insult to Hindus. We will climb the hill and demolish his tomb," Vyankatesh Abdeo, a VHP leader said yesterday.

Police are understood to be tightening security in the area in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the religious violence.

Many Indians hoped they had seen the last of this when the Hindu nationalist government of Atal Behari Vajpayee was voted out of power in May. Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power on the tide of Hindu nationalist sentiment unleashed by the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, and the BJP and VHP emerged from the same hardline Hindu political grouping.

Since its election defeat, the BJP has lurched to the right. Its new leader, Lal Krishna Advani, was one of the leading voices behind the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. Now the party is looking to bounce back in next month's state elections in Maharashtra. The BJP may have Ayodhya to thank for bringing it to power, but what happened there led to thousands of deaths and threatened to tear Indian society apart. Many will be hoping that history is not about to repeat itself.

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