THE destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya has plunged the country into a familiar trauma, where members of one religious group wreak violent retribution on members of another.
In this case Muslims want to avenge the razing of the mosque, an act long threatened by militant Hindu revivalists who want to build a temple to the god Ram in the shrine's place. The Hindus claim Ram was born on the disputed spot and want to celebrate his rule, a mythological time of fairness and prosperity for all.
These revivalist Hindus want to promote an Indian national identity - and some of them would create a Hindu state - based on Hindu social and religious traditions.
They argue that this identity was trampled on during 2,000 years of Mogul and British domination, and that India needs lifting. At its core, their project is at least partially worthwhile; they want to encourage a national spirit of self-reliance and self-confidence.
Their adulation of Ram is meant to recall a triumphal era for India. But in seeking to honor him by desecrating what is sacred to their Muslim fellow citizens, they risk undermining India's four-decade-old attempt to establish a lasting secular government that can keep peace among a people of varying religious, ethnic, and linguistic inclinations.
India's prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, vows to preserve his secular state. He has banned some of the militant revivalist groups that fomented the Ayodhya crisis and mobilized security forces to return calm. He says the mosque will be rebuilt and that Hindu extremism will no longer be tolerated.
Mr. Rao's actions are praiseworthy, but his critics justifiably point out that he and other leaders have until now been unwilling to rein in the revivalists, afraid of their newfound political power. India's courts have not brought the matter to resolution after more than 30 years of litigation.
As the standoff at the mosque continues, the Hindu militants must realize that asserting their brand of Hindu revivalism at the expense of India's minority Muslims will only lead to the unravelling of their nation. Rao should maintain his resolute stand.