Police arrest 500 Hindus in riots at Muslim tomb

Thousands of police were deployed in India yesterday to protect a 17th-century Muslim tomb from extremists who wanted to tear it to the ground. More than 500 people were arrested and the police were forced to baton charge protesters who were throwing stones at them and attacking journalists trying to report on the situation.

Thousands of police were deployed in India yesterday to protect a 17th-century Muslim tomb from extremists who wanted to tear it to the ground. More than 500 people were arrested and the police were forced to baton charge protesters who were throwing stones at them and attacking journalists trying to report on the situation.

It may all seem over the top for a tomb that is not one of India's greatest architectural gems and which is far from the tourist trail. But thousands of lives may depend on whether the Indian police manage to prevent the destruction of the tomb of Afzal Khan, near Mahabelshwar in the Western Ghats hills south of Bombay.

The calls from Hindu fundamentalists to tear the tomb down are a deliberate echo of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the town of Ayodhya, in 1992. The mosque was smashed to ruins by Hindu extremists because they claimed it had been built on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, and they wanted to build a temple there.

In the religious violence that followed the destruction at Ayodhya, more than 3,000 people died. Ten years later, it was Ayodhya that sparked 2002's Gujarat massacres, in which as many as 2,000 people died, most of them Muslims.

The party calling for the destruction of the tomb of Afzal Khan, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) from the Hindu far right, is the same one that led calls for the Babri Masjid. So the stakes for the police were high yesterday. They appeared to have succeeded in keeping extremists away from the tomb, at least for the time being.

About 2,000 police formed a cordon around the tomb, but thousands of extremists tried to push their way through - as many as 10,000, the VHP said.

"The mob turned unruly, started chasing press people and throwing stones at police. We had no option but to resort to a baton charge to restore law and order in this area," C G Kumbhar, the district superintendent of police, said.

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