Shah Bano says she was once just another Moslem housewife who tried her best to please her husband. She kept his home, cooked his meals and did not object when he took a second wife, as allowed by Islamic law.

For the next 30 years here in this crowded city on the dry central plains of India, the two wives of Mohammed Ahmad Khan, a well-to-do lawyer, raised their children -- 10 between them -- in the same uneasy household. The husband tried to maintain the peace. "I bought them the same clothes and the same jewels," he says. "I took my evening meals with Shah Bano, and my morning meals with my second wife."

But the relationship with Shah Bano was never smooth, and in 1978, when her children were grown, he finally divorced her. "I felt enormous grief," she says today. "But I also hated him."

She sued him for maintenance, similar to alimony, then waited seven years as the case made its way through the lower courts. Last year, the Supreme Court of India finally ordered Ahmad Khan to pay his 72-year-old former wife the equivalent of $40 a month on the grounds that Indian law provides maintenance payments for a destitute, divorced woman.

The decision, by a Hindu chief justice, has caused what many Moslems say is the biggest crisis in their community since the 1947 partition with Pakistan. Millions of Moslems have demonstrated in the streets against the judge's ruling, and he has been burned in effigy in cities across India.

Fundamentalist Islamic leaders call the ruling a Hindu attack on their culture and "blatant interference" in the affairs of their religion. Moslems point out that a provision in the criminal code exempts them from maintenance, which they say is against their "personal law" based on the Islamic holy book, the Koran. A liberal Moslem minority disagrees with that view, and now the community is split.

What started as a simple divorce has turned into one of the biggest political problems facing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. To the fury of feminists and the dismay of some in his own party, Gandhi has introduced a bill in Parliament that would reverse the Supreme Court decision, at least partly because Moslem voters have long been a crucial part of his constituency. Gandhi's advisors prefer to characterize the bill as an attempt to safeguard Indian unity. As one of them puts it, "grubbing for the Moslem vote is the reverse of the coin that says you are being sensitive to Moslem feelings."

Superficially, the Shah Bano case is a question of whether all women should be given rights in modern India. But many of the country's 100 million Moslems seem to think that the coming vote on Gandhi's bill will determine nothing less than their future as a minority in India, a country of more than 700 million people, more than 80 percent of them Hindu.

People on both sides call the Shah Bano case a more serious problem than even the disaffection of the Sikhs in Punjab, and they worry that nothing so threatens India's tenuous unity as trouble between the Moslems and Hindus.

From a Western point of view, the choice in the Shah Bano case seems obvious. The bill before Parliament in effect prohibits a Moslem woman from going to court to seek a maintenance payment from the man who divorces her. This appears to be an unconstitutional discrimination against women on the basis of religion. Rajiv Gandhi's advisers admit the bill could be challenged in court.

Feminists don't equivocate. "We were shocked," says Zoya Hassan, one of the Moslem women leading the agitation against the bill. "One does not expect a secular government to introduce a bill based on distinctions in religious communities and which denies rights to women."

Feminists have grounds to complain about the Moslem laws of marriage and divorce. A husband may take as many as four wives and can end any of his marriages simply by writing "I divorce my wife" three times on a piece of paper, then submitting it to court.

Yet the issue is not as simple as the feminists say. Consider some of the arguments on the other side:

First, Shah Bano is not the best test case. Contrary to press reports in India, she is not destitute. She lives with two of her sons, who have supported her since the divorce, in a house owned by her ex-husband. She admits the maintenance was "prestige money" for pocket expenses. And now, in a bizarre twist, she has decided not to accept the payment, saying that the Moslem outcry has convinced her it is against the laws of her religion.

Feminists say she was pressured by fundamentalists to give up the payment she won in court. That may be, but Shah Bano nonetheless is now seen as less a crusader than a publicity hound. Lately the press has been dredging up the sludge of her life, including a story that she recently threw her daughter-in-law out of the house. Shah Bano's son says it was a private matter that has since been settled.

But somewhat amazingly, Shah Bano now says she supports the legislation that would overturn the court decision in her favor -- and she has announced she would like a seat in the upper house of Parliament. "I've still got a lot of fight left in me," she said in an interview at her home. Her lined, sunken face lit up at the thought.

More important than Shah Bano herself, what angers many Moslems is their feeling that the Supreme Court ignored India's own laws protecting their rights.

Indian law clearly permits a judge to order a maintenance payment for a divorced woman. But that law was amended in 1973 to exempt women who had already received a lump sum payment in accordance with her religion's "personal law." The amendment was passed expressly for the Moslems, who call the payment "dower." Shah Bano received her "dower" before she went to court, but the judge didn't accept it as valid in his interpretation of Islamic law. Moslem leaders were infuriated, especially since the judge also made disparaging remarks about the general "degradation" of Moslem women.

"Islam does not leave a woman on the streets," argues Ghulam Mahamood Banatwala, a member of Parliament and one of the leading Moslem traditionalists in support of the new bill.

The new bill, a codification of Moslem personal law, would require a husband to pay his wife dower plus maintenance for three months. Then the financial responsiblity for a divorced woman would fall to her family or her local Moslem community board.

Even some supporters admit that the new bill is flawed. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that the Moslem community boards have no money.

But the imperfections are almost beside the point. The debate has grown so emotional that the bill has taken on a significance far beyond its original intent. Tahir Mahmood, a leading authority on Islamic history and law, says most Moslems aren't even aware of the bill's specifics but see it as a symbol to help cure their minority complex. "Through this bill," he says, "people think that Islam in India will be given a new lease on life."

To understand why Moslems feel this way, it helps to look back on their tumultuous history in India.

The prophet Mohammed preached the new religion of Islam from Mecca in the seventh century, but not until 400 years later did the first Moslem invader cross the border of India to loot Hindu temples and smash the idols of the gods. His name was Mahmud of Ghazna, and the Hindu fundamentalists of today have still not forgiven him.

By the 16th century, a different type of Moslem invader had arrived -- the Moguls from Central Asia, who built the Taj Mahal and ushered in a golden age of literature and art that inspires millions of secular Hindus today. But the fundamentalist Hindus see the Mogul era as an oppressive rule by foreigners who raped Hindu queens. As the journalist M.J. Akbar writes in "India: The Siege Within," "the Hindu fundamentalists, who came into their own in this century and still command the allegiance of a section of the urban middle class, refused to accept that there was anything called the Indian Moslem. In their view, the Moslem, by definition, was a foreigner and not an immigrant. India was, and could only be, a Hindu nation."

That was also the view of Moslem leaders in 1947 who prevailed on the British to carve the Islamic nation of Pakistan out of India. Many Moslems who chose to remain in India feel they were often blamed by Hindus for the partition, and for the three wars that have been fought between the two countries since.

But Moslems say a new generation with no memories of 1947 now feels less guilty about objecting to their treatment in India. "What is happening today, we could not have dreamt of doing in the aftermath of partition," says Mahmood. "Now we're not worried about anti-nationalism being attributed to us. Now we are freer."

When younger Moslems look around India today, they see the poor brothers of the richer Moslems who migrated to Pakistan. Large numbers of Moslems are among India's most socially and educationally backward people, and they feel they have no real say in the nation's future or their own. A disproportionate few are in politics, administrative service and industry.

Surrounding them on all sides is Hinduism, an incredibly absorptive religion that somehow swallowed up Buddhism -- which was once spread extensively throughout India. Moslems feel Islam may be next unless they insist upon a separate religious culture. Nothing is more important to that culture than their personal law, which Moslems believe is from the word of God, or Allah. "Our personal law is a very essential element in our quest for identity," says Syed Shahabuddin, an opposition party member and leading supporter of the new bill.

The Moslems may indeed have much to fear. But making matters worse are some of the more extreme Islamic leaders and their fire-breathing speeches about "Islam in danger."

"They've created a fear psychosis among the Moslems," says Arif Mohammed Khan, a young Moslem member of Parliament who resigned as a minister in Gandhi's cabinet in protest against the new bill. "Now they can present themselves as saviors to take fear out of the very situation of fear that they've created."

Modern India is a secular country. Prime Minister Gandhi has interpreted that to mean, perhaps conveniently in this case, that the personal laws of all religions should be respected. This includes laws governing Hindu marriage and divorce as well. Gandhi and his advisers admit it is a messy situation but say they see no alternative until the country can agree on a uniform civil code, which theoretically would combine elements from all the religious laws into one. No one expects this to happen before the next century.

There is certainly a need for reform. The condition of large numbers of Moslem women in this country is deplorable. On the streets of India's small towns and villages, covered from head to toe in the black tents of purdah, little holes made in the cloth for their eyes, they look and live like prisoners -- impoverished, uneducated and isolated, without the same rights granted to men.

But many Hindu women do not fare much better. Moslems legitimately wonder why this has been forgotten in the debate, and why the finger has been pointed only at them.

For now, it does not seem right that a Hindu majority should impose its will on the personal law granted to a religious minority. As a practical matter, ramming change down the throats of an alienated minority could bring more conflict in a country with a history of mass violence between Moslems and Hindus.

S. S. Gill, a retired government official, wrote in the Indian Express, the country's largest newspaper: "One thousand years' co-existence should have taught both communities not to encroach on each other's space. Any ham-handed effort to set other people's houses in order is bound to result in confrontation and conflict."

Real reform will probably have to come from the Moslems themselves. Other Islamic countries, including Pakistan, have revised their personal laws to keep pace with the times. But they have had the advantage of operating as a self-confident majority willing to discuss its failings in public.

At the very least, Shah Bano has brought the debate out into the open, which is a first step. "When I entered this sort of personal war with my husband," she says, "it was only to satisfy my self-respect. It was not to change the Moslem law."

Yet the Moslem law needs to be changed, and it would be best if the Moslems did it themselves.