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Varun Gandhi arrested over Muslim hate speech

LUCKNOW (Reuters) - Police in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday arrested Varun Gandhi, a great-grandson of the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, over allegations he made inflammatory comments against Muslims.

Varun Gandhi, great-grandson of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and scion of a family dynasty, gestures as he arrives at a local court in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, March 28, 2009. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Police fired in the air and baton-charged a crowd of at least 10,000 of Gandhi’s supporters shouting pro-Hindu slogans as he was arrested in his Pilibhit constituency.

The arrest of Gandhi, a member of India’s powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and election candidate for the Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), could be an embarrassment for the BJP weeks before the polls start.

A speech in early March by Gandhi has been widely played in the local media in which he allegedly threatens to cut off the hands of those who harm Hindus, and crudely compares a rival Muslim candidate to Osama Bin Laden.

The 29-year-old Gandhi, who unlike most of his family chose not to join India’s ruling Congress party, has said footage of his speech was doctored in a political conspiracy to tarnish his image.

“I am ready to go to jail. And I have come here to boost the morale of my people,” Gandhi told his supporters before his arrest. “I believe in whatever I have said.”

India’s election commission has demanded the BJP drop Gandhi as a candidate and said it will monitor his future campaign rallies. The BJP so far has stuck by its candidate.

Last week Gandhi unsuccessfully petitioned a high court in Uttar Pradesh to quash police reports of the speech he made in his constituency.

“Varun will remain in judicial custody in Pilibhit jail till Monday when his bail plea will be decided”, said Mani Ram Rao, the investigating police officer in the case.

The BJP has been accused in the past of stoking tensions to pander to its large Hindu vote base. Muslims make up around 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion-plus population.

Many opinion polls show the BJP-led main opposition alliance trailing the Congress-led ruling coalition.