|(Top) Policewomen arrest a VHP activist at a checkpoint at Pachwad, in Satara, and policemen thrash an activist near the tomb of Afzal Khan on Sunday. (AFP, Reuters)
Mumbai, Sept. 12: Maharashtra resounded with campaign cries and Shivaji slogans today as Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporters attempted an onslaught on the tomb of Afzal Khan, Shivaji's famous adversary, and Uma Bharti entered the state on her tiranga (Tricolour) mission.
About 500 VHP supporters were arrested and 13 vehicles seized during the day after the activists tried to tear down the tomb near Pratapgarh fort in Satara district, about 250 km from Mumbai.
About 1,500 of them had gathered since last night to carry out a 'Babri Masjid' like operation as local VHP leaders claimed that allowing Afzal Khan's tomb to stand was an 'insult' to Shivaji's memory.
As the crowd proceeded towards the tomb, cordoned off by tight security, the activists were stopped by the district administration that had deployed about 1,500 policemen.
The angry VHP supporters then rushed to National Highway 4 where they started throwing stones at policemen and staged a rasta roko. Satara police resorted to lathicharge, reportedly injuring some protesters, and later said the situation was under control.
The area near the tomb was under Section 144 since yesterday in view of a rally by the Pratapgarh Utsav Samiti, the organisation behind the agitation, at Pachwad, 64 km from the tomb.
The Samiti comprises VHP and Shiv Sena leaders. But the Sena dissociated itself from today's protest, which local Sangh parivar leaders were trying to build up as a second Ayodhya. No front-ranking VHP leader was present during the incident either.
'There was no local support. The activists came from other parts of western Maharashtra like Marathwada and Vidarbha,' said Varsha Deshpande, an activist working on communal issues.
The VHP had threatened to demolish the tomb today if the Maharashtra government failed to do so by August 31 after the government recently cancelled the lease to Hazrat Mohammed Afzal Khan Memorial Society.
Hearing a PIL filed by Deshpande, Bombay High Court had on September 7 ordered status quo and issued notices to the Centre, the state and the Satara district collector over their alleged apathy towards a historical monument and its adjoining land where illegal constructions are said have cropped up.
The tomb, revered by Hindus and Muslims alike today, had been built on Shivaji's order on the very site where he killed Afzal Khan with his 'tiger claws' during an assassination attempt on him on the foothills of Pratapgarh fort. The irony has escaped the VHP so far.
The tomb, following the VHP's protests and allegations of illegal construction around it, can now be visited only with the district administration's permission.
Even as tension mounted in Satara, Uma Bharti arrived in Latur district and launched the Maharashtra part of her Tiranga tour. BJP leader Gopinath Munde received her and was by her side at Udgir at the first rally.
Bharti delivered an ultimatum to chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, saying that the Congress has to clarify its stand on the Savarkar issue within 24 hours. 'The chief minister has to clearly state whether his party thinks he is a patriot,' she said.
She repeated that taking off a plaque with Savarkar's quotes in Cellular Jail in Port Blair was an insult to a 'great man'. Bharti, who will be in Maharashtra for five days, also launched an attack at the Congress governments in the state and the Centre.
But the state BJP did not appear to rely on Bharti's rally as poll campaign. BJP leader Pramod Mahajan told reporters that Bharti's tour was not likely to make a difference to the party's campaign.
The ruling Congress-NCP alliance was stuck in the impasse over seat-sharing. Though the announcement was to made before the week was over, the leadership of the two parties remained huddled through the day unable to come to an understanding.