KANPUR, INDIA -- In a riot-torn slum here, Moslem wives hand women's jewelry to men who refused to fight in a recent round of religious violence that left dozens of people shot, stabbed, burned and hacked to death after Hindu nationalists renewed a campaign to remove a mosque from a site sacred to them a hundred miles away.

A widespread symbol of cowardice, the jewelry is meant to spur Moslem men to hit the streets when fighting begins again. That could be any day, residents on both sides of the issue said.

"We've come to such a stage that we can't go back now," said Naresh Srivastra, a Hindu trader, as he stood in a mud alley that divides Hindu and Moslem neighborhoods here. "If the Hindu nationalists stop their campaign against the mosques, it will only get worse, because the Moslems will think it's their victory, and they will come and slaughter us."

Not since it achieved independence four decades ago has India faced Hindu-Moslem violence of the kind now sweeping its densely populated north. On a journey through hundreds of miles of riot-marred territory, a reporter hears prediction after prediction of more bloodshed. Hardly anyone talks of peace or compromise.

"This new trend of religious fighting is like a flood," said Fazalur Rahman Waizi Nadvi, a Lucknow mullah whose mosque has been targeted for removal by some Hindu militants. "When it recedes, you will see only corpses and ruins."

The immediate cause of confrontation is a dispute over religious turf. For more than a year, Hindu nationalists have been campaigning to replace a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya with a Hindu temple. Many Hindus believe the mosque sits on the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu god, and that a Hindu temple on the site was demolished several hundred years ago by Moslem invaders.

On Oct. 30, thousands of Hindu protesters broke through police barricades and swarmed into the mosque, attacking it with fists and hammers. Police opened fire, killing more than a dozen people. Since then, rioting has spread and the agitation has gathered force, with some Hindu militants vowing to extend their campaign to 3,000 other disputed mosques if their demands are not met.

High emotions raised by the temple-mosque dispute mask underlying changes in India that have made this religious confrontation more intractable and volatile than any between Hindus and Moslems in more than 40 years, according to many Indians. In 1947 and early 1948, an estimated 500,000 people died in religious riots as the British withdrew from their former colony and the subcontinent was partitioned into the modern states of Islamic Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

The consensus in favor of secularism and socialism that has held fractious India together since then is under assault today. Tens of millions of Hindus now see the country's centrist politicians -- the secular heirs to independence leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru -- as corrupt, opportunistic and politically bankrupt.

These politicians, whether from the Congress Party of Rajiv Gandhi or the Janata Party factions led by former prime minister V.P. Singh and present Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, are denounced by leaders of the Hindu movement as "pseudo-secularists" out to sustain their decades-old grip on power by "appeasing" the country's sizable Moslem minority.

Many Hindus now say openly that Moslems, by deliberately defying the country's voluntary birth-control program, are out to take over the country -- and that they must be stopped. India's Moslem population is growing more rapidly than that of its Hindus, but Moslems still make up only about 15 percent of the country's estimated 820 million people.

The view that a high Moslem birth rate poses a threat to India's character and integrity was once expressed only by a small number of fervent Hindu extremists. Today, it is a part of mainstream political debate and is the most emotional of a long list of Hindu complaints about Moslems.

Economists and sociologists offer various explanations for this surge of Hindu resentment -- the failure of India's goverment and bureaucracy to create equal opportunities, growing economic competition for jobs and school admissions in the cities, and a spreading perception that ordinary Hindus are victims of reverse discrimination because of laws that favor Moslems and lower castes.

The feeling among many Hindus that the country is falling apart and must be unified through ardent Hindu nationalism is reinforced by the growing strength of separatist movements in Kashmir, Punjab and the northeastern state of Assam.

Hindu revivalist politicians have seized on these fears and resentments to build a powerful movement based in the northern cities and in the rising middle class, blaming Moslems and their secular political allies for many of the country's accumulating problems. The movement's main political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, is now the second largest party in parliament.

Supporters see the BJP as a nationalist force that will cleanse Indian politics and clarify the country's identity. They blame secular politicians for fostering violence to discredit the Hindu nationalists. They also point out that in several states where the BJP has come to power, predictions of violence against Moslems have proven unfounded.

Opponents of the BJP and its allied Hindu social organizations see it as a neo-Fascist movement that contains the seeds of genocidal violence.

Hindu leaders describe their movement as a grass-roots campaign that will reshape India's national character and its politics.

"We are not just involved in a religious movement. We are creating a nationalist force in the country -- we are changing the nature of politics," BJP leader L.K. Advani told several thousand chanting students at a recent Hindu youth convention in New Delhi. "Nehru said, 'We shall crush {the Hindu movement}.' I say that we shall crush the crushing mentality. . . . This is our war, our revolt."

Disputed religious real estate is fertile ground for Hindu nationalists because it evokes strong emotions about India's history and identity. Afghan kings seeking riches and preaching Islamic revolution first swept onto the Hindu-dominated subcontinent in the 10th century, conquering much of what is now India's north. Millions died in religious wars that today are shrouded in myth and legend. Hindus and Moslems each have their own heroes, tombs, monuments and epic literature. Neither side accepts the other's version of history.

Modern Hindu leaders seek redress of crimes they say were committed long ago by Moslem rulers. Chief among these was the destruction of Hindu temples and the construction of mosques on Hindu religious sites, which Hindu leaders say was done deliberately to demoralize a conquered populace. Only by removing the mosques and rebuilding temples will Hindu pride be assuaged, they say.

National Hindu leaders such as the articulate and urbane Advani can argue persuasively that the BJP seeks only to redress Hindu grievances, not to punish or kill Moslems. But in the slums of northern India, where the Hindu revival is marked by growing violence, such assurances of moderation are less often heard from Hindu leaders.

"There's a devil in the ordinary Moslem heart; you saw it in the past when they knocked down our temples," said Shakar Rawat, a BJP leader in riot-stricken Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. "Their population is on the increase rapidly. Soon they will be equal or the majority. Why aren't they abiding by the national interest and the rules for population control?"

Hard-line Moslem leaders, inspired by the Islamic revival in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, preach their own brand of religious revolution, condemning Hindus as idol-worshipping weaklings who can be defeated again, as they were during the invasions centuries ago.

Although India's Moslems are generallly outnumbered and outgunned in battles with Hindus, in recent weeks they have been fighting furiously.

"Every Moslem child knows that these are mosques they are talking about," said Haji Islam Qureshi, a Moslem leader in Agra, where 24 died in riots last month. "A Moslem child will die, but he won't give these mosques away. . . . It will get bloodier and bloodier."

Prime Minister Shekhar, who leads a weak minority government, appears to be in a poor position to prove such forecasts wrong. BJP and allied Hindu revivalist leaders oppose his government just as strongly as they oppose Moslem leaders. Hundreds of Hindu activists have been arrested or have gone into hiding in recent weeks, but above-ground Hindu leaders vow to step up their campaign after a planning session set for mid-January.

Attempts to solve the mosque-temple disputes through negotiation have been stalled for weeks. Moslem leaders vow they will not compromise. BJP politicians benefit from the stalemate because it provides fuel for their continuing campaign to extend their popularity to India's south and to the countryside.

"In 40 years, in our history, I've seen ups and downs," the BJP's Advani told a Hindu youth convention on Dec. 24. "But in terms of enthusiasm, depth of commitment, impact, I've not seen another revolution" like the one now gathering momentum.

Among the youth particularly, Advani continued, referring to the Oct. 30 march on the Ayodhya mosque -- "apart from religious faith, it was the look of victory in their eyes, as if some feeling which has been stamped on for 40 years has suddenly found vent."