Police said they charged a crowd of about 500 people throwing stones at them and passing vehicles in Panchwad village near the heavily guarded tomb in western Maharashtra state, about 250 km from Bombay.

Some 2,000 officers have been deployed in the area over fears that Hindu activists could rekindle the kind of religious violence seen in 1992 when they defied a court order and tore down the 16th-century Babri masjid (mosque), which they said stood on the birthplace of Hindu god Ram.

That sparked India's worst religious riots since independence, in which some 3,000 people were killed.

Unruly mob

"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. Kumbhar, district superintendent of police, told Reuters.

"They started chanting slogans that they should be allowed to go and carry out their work of destroying the tomb."

The authorities fear a repeat of
the Babri mosque incident

Kumbhar said about 100 people had been detained after the clash and authorities were on alert to prevent anybody from sneaking up the hills to the tomb of the general, Afzalkhan, which Hindus want to remove as it lies near the fort of the Hindu warrior king, Shivaji, whom he tried to murder.

Police had already detained hundreds of people as a preventive measure and set up dozens of barricades on the winding roads leading to the tomb and the Pratapgadh fort near the hill resort of Mahabaleshwar.

Elections loom

Many people worship Shivaji like a god, and a powerful provincial right-wing Hindu political party - the Shiv Sena, or Shivaji's army - is named after him.

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

'Police should allow us to go to the place to carry out our sacred mission'

Hindu activist
But the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - an ally of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which started the campaign, and Shiv Sena - hopes to make a comeback in next month's state elections after it unexpectedly lost power in New Delhi in May.

"Police should allow us to go to the place to carry out our sacred mission", said one of the activists, his forehead smeared with vermilion, before the clashes.

Holy tomb 

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

Afzalkhan met Shivaji to initiate peace talks on the hill 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.

"Our fear is that this could some day become another Babri Masjid", said A. Bhujbal, a senior police officer.

"That movement started in a similar manner and then gathered momentum."