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Sunday, 17 November, 2002, 23:56 GMT
Indian police free Hindu hardliners
Arrested Hindu activists make show of defiance
Hindu activists were arrested across the state
Indian police have released two senior officials of the radical World Hindu Council (VHP) who were arrested for defying a ban on a march in the state of Gujarat.

The officials, Pravin Togadia and Acharya Dharmenda, were detained as they addressed the outlawed meeting of right-wing Hindus in Ahmedabad. Hundreds of other arrests also took place across the state.

Protesters had been planning to march to the town of Godhra where an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in February sparked off riots across the state.

Acharya Dharmenda (left) and Pravin Togadia
Acharya Dharmenda (left) and Pravin Togadia remonstrated with police
More than 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - died in the violence.

The ban was imposed to prevent further clashes in the run-up to state elections in Gujarat next month.

The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had appealed to the group to obey the ban. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, is allied to the VHP.

Ahead of the planned march, the VHP leaders had called for the establishment of a Hindu state.

The Election Commission said the VHP march should not be allowed because there was a likelihood of "provocative and intemperate" speeches being made during the procession.

But the VHP called the ruling "an infringement of our fundamental right" and rejected an appeal by the prime minister to abide by the ruling.

Crucial elections

The proposed march was expected to feature replicas of the burnt train coach in which 58 Hindu activists were killed.

Gujarat's elections are being seen as a crucial test for the main party in India's governing coalition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power in Gujarat.

The BJP lost a humiliating string of state elections earlier this year and faces another round next spring, ahead of general elections due by 2004.

The party has dismissed allegations that it is trying to cash in on religious sentiment in Gujarat, which has a long history of religious violence.

But opposition parties accuse it of using political gimmicks to mobilise Hindu voters.

Correspondents say the main opposition Congress party is hoping to gain support from voters who want an end to the violence and the economic disruption it has caused.

Gujarat conflict in-depth

Key vote

Tense state

Background

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