Supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have said they intend to raze the controversial shrine of a 17th century Muslim general on Sunday, in a grim echo of the 1992 razing of a mosque that sparked some of India's worst religious riots.

Thousands of police have been deployed around the tomb near Mahabaleshwar, a hill resort about 250km from Mumbai, to prevent communal violence as tensions rise ahead of elections for the Maharashtra state assembly next month.

Some Hindus want the tomb of the general, Afzalkhan, removed because it lies near the fort of the Hindu warrior king he tried to murder, Shivaji, whom many people worship like a god.

"Afzalkhan is an insult to Hindus. We will climb the hill and demolish his tomb," Vyankatesh Abdeo, a leader of the VHP, which started the campaign, told Reuters.

Security tightened

Religious issues are being raked
up anew ahead of state elections

The campaign organisers say they will bring 30,000 people to the site. But police have pledged to stop them damaging the tomb and to prevent any violence.

"Security is tightened to avoid any kind of a communal flare-up," said police officer SR Mane. "We don't want any trouble there."

Muslims consider the tomb holy, and for years, several have travelled there to offer prayers and seek help. But a year ago authorities closed off the site because of the controversy.

Afzalkhan, an envoy of the Moghul ruler Aurangzeb, met Shivaji to initiate peace talks on the hillock where the tomb - and the ruins of Shivaji's Pratapgadh fort - now lie.

The general tried to assassinate Shivaji, but the king stabbed him instead and buried Afzalkhan where he fell.

Political motivation

A statue of Shivaji now also stands on the hill and a Hindu political party is named after him - the Shiv Sena, or Shivaji's army.

"They are trying to build a momentum before elections. This shows that there is total bankruptcy of ideas for right-wing parties in the country"

Feroze Mithiborwala,
Muslim Youth of India

Organisers of the campaign against the tomb have not explained why they are moving to destroy it now after years of controversy.

But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - an ally of the VHP and Shiv Sena - hopes to make a comeback in next month's state elections after it was unexpectedly dumped from power in New Delhi in May.

"The tomb has been there for hundreds of years. Why has the issue been raked up now?" asked Feroze Mithiborwala, a convenor of the Muslim Youth of India.

'Total bankrupcy'

"They are trying to build a momentum before elections. This shows that there is total bankruptcy of ideas for right-wing parties in the country."

The renewed controversy comes as Hindu groups have rung alarm bells over census data released this week that appeared to show a jump of almost 33% in the number of Muslims between 1991 and 2001.

Indian premier Manmohan Singh
heads a secular if shaky coalition 

Some groups have long warned that higher Muslim birth rates could eventually threaten India's Hindu majority - more than 80 percent of the population.

But the new figures were skewed by the inclusion of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, in the 2001 census after it was left out in 1991 because of separatist violence.

Census revised

Census officials on Thursday revised the growth rate to just over 29%, when adjusted for Kashmir. The growth rate for Hindus was 20% over the same period.

India's long and varied history has left hundreds of places across the country where Hindu and Muslim holy sites stand side by side, sometimes triggering bloody conflicts.

In 1992 Hindu activists defied a court order and razed a 16th-century mosque, which they said stood on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram in the northern town of Ayodhya.

That triggered India's worst religious bloodshed since independence, killing about 3000.