NEW DELHI -- India is staggering through one of its bloodiest outbreaks of religious violence this year as Hindus and Moslems in five large cities defy curfews and army occupation to battle with knives, stones, sticks and gasoline bombs.
Official reports and estimates by witnesses indicate that more than 200 people have been killed during the past week and many more injured. In some areas, witnesses have reported women and children among the victims of hand-to-hand combat in crowded city slums.
Five cities of more than 1 million people -- Hyderabad, Aligarh, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and Varanasi -- have been placed under curfew or occupation, but enraged mobs still take to the streets daily to carry out revenge attacks against their rivals. In addition, clashes between Hindus and Moslems spread Saturday to Agra, home of India's most famous tourist site, the Taj Mahal, Indian news agencies reported.
The street battles have exacerbated tensions between India and Pakistan, and politicians in Pakistan have accused New Delhi of failing to protect Moslems while Indian officials have accused Islamabad of interfering in India's internal affairs.
A renewed attempt by Hindu revivalists to replace an existing mosque with a Hindu temple in the northern town of Ayodhya ignited this latest round of confrontation. The Hindu activists staged a peaceful but emotional protest at the mosque site on Dec. 6, sparking religious fighting elsewhere in the country.
India's new prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, has been scrambling to negotiate a compromise to settle the Ayodhya dispute, but his many meetings have so far been unsuccessful.
But even if a compromise on Ayodhya is reached, Hindu activists say there are about 3,000 other mosques in India built centuries ago by Moslem invaders on sites sacred to Hindus. Many Hindu leaders vow to replace these mosques with Hindu temples as well.
The city most severely affected by religious rioting last week, Hyderabad, has been the scene of bloody Hindu-Moslem battles since the 14th century, when Moslem armies from the north swept down the subcontinent. For several centuries prior to independence in 1947, Hyderabad was a semi-independent kingdom where the Hindu majority population was ruled by a Moslem dynasty.
Ancient enmities erupted last week in Hyderabad's old city, where Hindus and Moslems live in congested poverty. Dozens of people have been reported killed there in stabbings and bloody fights waged with rocks and sticks.
In the densely populated north, where politically active Hindus have concentrated their religious and nationalist campaigns, the area affected by violence is growing. Hindu activists have carried their militant message into smaller northern towns and villages, infecting sections of the countryside with religious tensions ordinarily confined to cities.
Another disquieting trend has been the reported spread of Hindu activism to India's rural south, where -- outside of Hyderabad -- religious violence has been relatively rare.
Moslems, an impoverished and socially ostracized minority of 100 million in India, generally suffer more casualties in religious street battles because they lack resources to organize and defend themselves the way Hindus do. An exception is in Hyderabad, where descendants of the kingdom's Moslem soldiers train in private militias and carry out organized attacks on Hindu activists and civilians.
Both sides take out their anger on police and paramilitary troops called to restore order. The policemen and soldiers themselves often become caught up in the violent religious rivalry and sometimes are unable or unwilling to enforce peace effectively, according to security force officers.