More than 15,000 militant Hindu pilgrims stormed a disputed mosque Tuesday and began demolishing the Moslem shrine in an outbreak of religious violence that quickly spread nationwide. Government forces later retook the 16th century mosque, but the incident triggered continuing Hindu-Moslem clashes in other parts of the country, leaving at least 32 dead, and pushed India closer to the brink of religious war.
Within hours, Prime Minister V.P. Singh offered to resign over the controversy.
"My conscience is clear that I have sacrificed the highest office for the cause of the unity of the country and the oppressed," Singh said in his letter offering to resign. His reference to "the oppressed" was to Hindu-dominated India's minority Moslem community.
In an interview broadcast on state-run television Tuesday night, Singh called the controversy over the mosque "the biggest challenge we have faced since the independence of the country."
The Hindu militants' attempts to replace the 16th century mosque with a Hindu temple stem from their belief that it stands on the birthplace of Ram, a Hindu god.
Independent scholars say there is virtually no evidence for this claim, but the dispute has become infused with religious hatreds in India that remain strong four centuries after Moslem emperors invaded the Hindu-dominated subcontinent.
The dispute over the mosque in Ayodhya, 300 miles southeast of New Delhi, has touched off sporadic riots in India for more than a year, claiming hundreds of lives.
Singh clearly staked his office and the future of his 10-month-old government on his ability to guard the mosque. Last week, the prime minister ordered the arrest of his government's key coalition partner, the leader of a Hindu fundamentalist party, and the party retaliated by withdrawing the support that Singh needs to stay in power.
The Hindu radicals had announced that the mosque would be demolished Tuesday and a temple put up there. To try to prevent the assault, Singh ordered the arrests of more than 100,000 Hindu fundamentalists and militant pilgrims nationwide and deployed tens of thousands of police and paramilitary troops throughout Ayodhya and its surrounding state of Uttar Pradesh.
At least five Hindu militants were killed in the assault on the shrine when police opened fire. But many officers of the state's overwhelmingly Hindu police force did little to stop the mobs of pilgrims.
One senior officer at the mosque said that when the mob was about to break through into the mosque complex, he had refused to implement shoot-to-kill orders issued by local civilian authorities.
"Why kill people when there is another way?" asked the officer, who is a Hindu commander of the Border Security Force, an elite Indian paramilitary group controlled by Singh's central government. "Now it's time for the politicians to talk and settle this."
Instead of shooting the demonstrators, many in the Border Security Force were ordered to fire tear-gas grenades into the mob. Nearly 100 of the thousands of chanting pilgrims who reached the outer barricades still managed to break through the main gate and into the mosque.
Bleeding, choking, crying and shrieking, "Lord, Lord Ram! Long live Ram!," most of the mob raced through the cloud of tear-gas and into the shrine, where they began tearing away at the mosque.
"We'll destroy this mosque and 3,000 more like it if we must to protect our Hindustan (Hindu nation)," a businessman screamed.
More than two dozen state riot police, all of them Hindus, stood by as the mob attacked the wall, the dome and the interior of the mosque. The demolition began by hand, as the Hindu militants ripped out wall bricks and wrought-iron window gratings with their bare hands.
It was not until after senior civilian officials arrived on the scene, about 15 minutes after the mosque was invaded, that the riot police were mobilized and the compound was quickly cleared.
When the smoke was gone, the mosque floor was littered with broken bricks and concrete and stained with blood, and the outer walls were gouged and scarred.
Besides the violence in Ayodhya, Hindus and Moslems clashed Tuesday in several other northern and central cities, according to Indian news reports. Army and paramilitary forces have been called out to enforce curfews in Lucknow, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and smaller cities.
To most observers, the attack on the mosque symbolized both the government's failure to keep religious peace and the sheer force of the grass-roots Hindu fundamentalist movement that has swept much of India.
Moslems make up 12 percent of India's 840-million people. Hindus represent 82 percent of the population in India, which is constitutionally a secular nation.
"Today is a watershed," said Yogi Aggarwal, a Bombay journalist and political analyst after he witnessed the assault on the shrine. "From this day on, India can no longer claim to be a secular state. All the machinery of the state has failed to stop this thing, and I'm afraid this is only the beginning of a very troubled time for us."
_ Information from the Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.