FORTY years ago, Gopal Godse helped kill Mohandas Gandhi for trying to conciliate Hindus and Muslims. In 1948, Mr. Godse; his brother Nathuram, who pulled the trigger; and five other conspirators assassinated India's founding father because they felt Gandhi appeased Muslims, challenged Hindu supremacy, and triggered the subcontinent's division into India and Pakistan.
Today, Godse - an influential Hindu zealot and candidate in national elections this month - contends Hindus remain under siege. The newest threat, he says, comes from Muslim claims to a controversial north Indian shrine that Hindus say rightly belongs to them.
``We had no personal reason to do what was done to Gandhi. It was national integrity which forced us to do it,'' says the 70-year-old Godse, who served 18 years in prison for plotting Gandhi's murder.
``Turning this [Hindu] temple into a mosque also is against the interests of our national integrity. If we compromise on this issue, we will give room for further partition of India.''
India, more than 80 percent Hindu but founded as a secular nation, is being swept by fundamentalist forces that cloud the coming elections.
In electorally crucial northern states, Hindus are rallying to a revivalist message calling for a Hindu renaissance and an end to government concessions to Muslims and other minorities. Their votes are key to the opposition challenge to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Nov. 22-25 poll.
In Muslim pockets, a new militancy also has emerged. Traditionally, India's 100 million Muslims, the world's second-largest Islamic community after Indonesia, have voted for the ruling Congress Party, which has dominated the country since independence.
But disenchantment has set in as many Muslims remain stuck on the lower economic and social rungs. Spreading Hindu fundamentalism and the emergence of Hindu senas, or private armies, have driven many youths to militant Muslim groups.
The disputed shrine, located at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh State, looms as a major communal flashpoint. Hindus claim the site is the birthplace of the god-king Ram. Muslims say Babar, the first Mogul emperor, built a mosque there in the early 16th century.
Already, almost 200 people have died in rioting over the shrine and other communal issues. Today and tomorrow, right-wing Hindus plan to march to Ayodhya to lay the foundation for a new temple and later demolish the mosque. Muslims vow to create a showdown.
``This is an issue that could easily get out of hand and become very significant in the outcome of the election,'' says a Western diplomat here.
Although founded on the secular ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, India often has wrestled with its religious divisions.
British India was partitioned at independence in 1947 because Muslims claimed they could not get a fair deal in a nation dominated by Hindus. The violent convulsions that led to the birth of India and Pakistan left a deep resentment among Hindus and a sense of dislocation among Muslims who chose to remain behind.
Of late, religious tensions and violence have surged to unprecedented levels.
Traditional Indian society and values have been buffeted by modernization, overpopulation, and the rapid growth of cities. Insecure and rootless, many Indians have turned to fundamentalism as an anchor.
Militancy among the Muslim minority reflects deep social and economic discontent. More than 60 percent of Muslims live below the poverty line. The community lags in education and is underrepresented in government.
In the last three years, Muslims have felt increasingly vulnerable to communal violence and political challenges. In 1987, scores of Muslims died in vicious rioting in the Uttar Pradesh city of Meerut, many at the hands of the Hindu-dominated police force.
In 1986, a court award of alimony to a divorced Muslim woman was widely seen as undermining sharia (Islamic law), under which a husband cannot be required to pay maintenance. The government later superseded the legal judgment with legislation, only to stir Hindu charges of special treatment for Muslims.
For their part, Hindus feel their majority culture is under threat. A network of right-wing Hindu organizations, playing on that insecurity, have surged in recent years, winning support with their emotional call to retake temples now used as mosques.
They point to violence against Hindus by Muslims in Kashmir and by Sikhs in Punjab. Upper-caste Hindus say they have lost out as the government launched massive affirmative action programs to help lower castes and minorities.
The religious tensions have been further stirred by the elections and by politicians hoping to capitalize on the charged atmosphere. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party has the most to gain from the simmering sentiments. As in 1984, in the aftermath of his mother's assassination, anti-Sikh feelings gave Gandhi a huge Hindu majority.
V.P. Singh, Gandhi's main challenger, is caught in the middle, needing the support of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which is strong in the key northern states known as the ``Hindi heartland.''
But the BJP has closely linked itself to the Hindu fundamentalists who planned the march on the Ayodhya shrine. Violence there could drive Muslims firmly into the Congress camp, giving Gandhi vital votes in the election.
``All of the political parties are taking advantage of this situation,'' says a senior Congress (I) Party official who is a critic of the prime minister. ``This sort of thing tears at the democratic fabric of this country.''
Meanwhile, the politicians on both sides have done nothing to arrest the confrontation. Gandhi kicked off his campaign last week accusing the opposition of feeding communal fires for their own purposes.
Mr. Singh, Gandhi's challenger, countercharged that the ruling party has launched a ``diabolical plot'' to ignite communal violence and manipulate it during the election.
Meanwhile, specially blessed bricks began arriving today from around the country for use in constructing the new temple. Both sides say there is no compromise.
``Ayodhya is ours,'' says Godse, the fundamentalist Hindu leader and politician. ``If we allow it to remain a mosque, Hindus are merely slaves.''