NEW DELHI, NOV. 2 -- Religious violence spread across northern India today as Hindus and Moslems defied curfews to attack each other with knives, guns and gasoline grenades, killing dozens of people and injuring many more.
The Press Trust of India put the nationwide death toll at 68, the highest single-day total from religious riots in weeks. The United News of India said at least 25 died and more than 100 were injured.
Thousands of Hindu militants renewed their assault on a disputed mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, provoking fire from police that killed at least nine people, according to government officials and witnesses. The Hindu activists claim the mosque, called the Babri Masjid, was erected more than 300 years ago on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. They have vowed to replace the mosque, which Moslems have not used for worship since 1951, with a Hindu temple.
Scattered riots were reported in a number of northern cities that have been curfew-bound since the Ayodhya mosque dispute flared earlier this week. Street battles between Hindus and Moslems erupted in Patna, the capital of Bihar state, where four people were reported killed and more than 25 injured.
Police and paramilitary forces were deployed around the north and west to impose curfews in dozens of cities and towns that have experienced religious violence in the past. Much of the recent violence has broken out in densely populated urban areas where Hindus and Moslems live close together in slum conditions.
More than four decades after an estimated 1 million people died in religious fighting when British territory on the subcontinent was partitioned into Moslem Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, religious clashes still plague areas of India.
The latest violence was sparked by the Babri Masjid dispute. But more broadly, it reflects the collapse of a political alliance in New Delhi between the centrist prime minister, V.P. Singh, and politically active Hindus affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which until last week backed Singh's government in Parliament.
The split between the BJP and Singh's Janata Party led to violence in Ayodhya when neither side was willing to negotiate a political compromise over the proposed construction of a temple there. The two parties are maneuvering for a confidence vote set to be held Nov. 7 in India's Parliament. Singh's government is expected to lose the vote.
The status of the Babri Masjid has been disputed for decades, and peaceful compromises have been negotiated several times before. But recently the BJP and allied groups have seized on the mosque as a symbol of their campaign to inject Hindu nationalist values into India's traditionally secular politics.
One complication in the recent violence has been the reluctance of Hindu paramilitary troops deployed around Ayodhya to stop Hindu activists from reaching the site. "I knew this situation was going to arise," a senior paramilitary officer here said in an interview. "When you ask a soldier to do something that is going to make the building of a temple to Ram difficult, he is going to feel conflicting emotions."
While northern and western India have been rocked by Hindu-Moslem clashes this week, the south of the country has remained relatively quiet. Clashes have been reported in the large southern city of Hyderabad, which has long been troubled by religious violence, but major cities such as Madras, Bombay and Bangalore have reported few significant incidents.