Police arrested dozens of Hindu activists in northern India on Sunday, even as others pledged to march to a disputed holy site with a history of triggering Hindu-Muslim bloodshed.
Thousands of police have mobilised in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to try to prevent violence and block the start planned for Sunday of a 20-day march to the temple town of Ayodhya.
At least 125 people have been arrested including leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) before the start of the march, said a spokesman for the hardline Hindu group. State authorities have banned the march for fear of violence.
“Some of our senior leaders have been arrested but people are collecting in groups to join the yatra (religious march),” VHP spokesman Prakash Sharma told AFP.
Hindus and Muslims both claim a disputed site in Ayodhya. The destruction of a 16th-century mosque there by Hindu zealots in 1992 triggered some of the worst sectarian violence in India since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
The march is part of a campaign to build a temple on the ruins of the mosque site. That drive remains an important plank of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to national prominence over the Ayodhya issue.
Hindus believe the Babri mosque was built by the Moghul emperor Babur on the site of a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior god Ram.
Officials banned the march by Hindu holy men, which was planned to cover 321 kilometres and traverse six districts of Uttar Pradesh before reaching Ayodhya on September 13.
VHP leader Praveen Togadia argued that the ban was illegal, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
“This is not a political yatra but a religious one and (a) ban or oppression resorted to by the government would not be tolerated at any cost,” Togadia told reporters before he was arrested on Sunday.
VHP spokesman Sharma said his group would start protests across India on Monday over the ban and over a police crackdown on its supporters.
Since 1992 the disputed site has been cordoned off and guarded by troops.
India has avoided any major outbreak of Hindu-Muslim clashes since riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.