AYODHYA, India — Surrounded by towering barbed wire, machine-gun nests, remote-surveillance cameras and hundreds of heavily armed troops, a senior Indian state police official sat down for a moment last week inside the 16th-Century Babri Masjid mosque and tried to explain how this simple structure has become the focal point of South Asia's latest holy war.
It was the day before 15,000 frenzied Hindu fundamentalist pilgrims stormed the mosque and began tearing it to pieces in the name of their legendary demigod, Lord Rama, who many Hindus believe was born on that spot. The police officer had just finished leading a small group of journalists on a tour of the disputed Muslim shrine, which had been placed off-limits to all worshipers in hopes of preventing the kind of destruction that ultimately occurred.
"I am completely against this Hindu fundamentalism, mind you," said the officer, himself a Hindu descendant of Rajput kings who, centuries ago, fought to the death against the Islamic Mogul emperors who had built this mosque and thousands of others on the sites of ancient Hindu temples.
"But I do understand the sentiments. Of course, some politics is there. But that is not the main thing. Every action, you see, has a reaction. If some Muslims turn into fundamentalists, then the Hindus begin to feel they should convert themselves as well. What you are seeing in India today," the officer said, "is a simple case of fundamentalism creating fundamentalism."
And so it was, just 24 hours later, that wave after wave of those Hindu neo-fundamentalists--doctors, lawyers, peasants and holy men--broke through police barricades erected to guard the mosque, chanting, "Lord Lord Ram; Long Live Ram." They braved tear gas, bullets and cane charges in a bloody attack that reached the inner shrine where the police officer had been sitting a day before.
Within hours, Muslims attacked celebrating Hindus in many Indian cities and towns, fueling a cycle of violence that has left as many as 250 dead and the government of Indian Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who had staked his political future on protecting that mosque, on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles away, wild-eyed Muslims poured out of their houses in Bangladesh, Hindu-dominated India's Islamic neighbor to the east, setting fire to Hindu temples in an orgy of religious retaliation that left more dead and the nation's two major cities under 24-hour curfew.
And in Pakistan, India's Islamic western neighbor where a Muslim-fundamentalist-backed government has just won control, there were angry condemnations at the highest levels of society.
This chain reaction of bloodletting, analysts say, threatens to plunge the Indian subcontinent into its worst grass-roots religious warfare since British colonial rulers partitioned the region along Hindu-Muslim lines more than four decades ago.
Behind it all, according to many analysts and to militant Hindus, is the truth voiced by that senior police official: In a region where religion has long defined both one's nation and oneself, fundamentalism seems to beget fundamentalism.
The mosque-temple controversy in India's sacred town of Ayodhya has long been a political as well as religious dispute. Many blame the leaders of India's warring political parties for encouraging Hindu-Muslim rivalry in a cynical search for votes.
The prime minister has called Ayodhya a critical test of India's constitutional underpinnings as a secular state, in which the more than 750 million Hindus and 100 million Muslims enjoy equal rights, along with smaller minorities of Christians and Buddhists. Portraying himself as a committed socialist and secularist, Singh has warned that India's image as a Gandhian haven of religious tolerance will be tarnished if the Hindu militants succeed. The fundamentalists vow to tear down the entire mosque and replace it with a multimillion-dollar temple honoring what they believe to be the birthplace of Rama.
Singh's secular crusade appears also to be aimed at securing the Muslim vote. His shaky 10-month rule has depended on support both from India's leftist parties and its increasingly powerful right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party.
Singh was bound to lose the support of the fundamentalists, most political analysts say. By abandoning them early, his party could attract Muslim support and emerge stronger in new elections.
Similarly, the Hindu fundamentalist party, whose strength in Parliament grew from two seats in 1984 to 82 last year, has used the Ram temple issue in a strategy that they hope will now bring them to power.
Behind the politics, however, there is something far more emotional and potentially explosive: a mass movement of Hindu fundamentalism that, while it may have been nurtured by politicians, has taken on a life of its own.