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New Delhi does battle with Hindu nationalists

The fighting between Hindus and Muslims that has jolted India over the past 15 days may have exhausted itself, but a dangerous political battle is brewing between the Congress government and the right-wing Hindu nationalists whom the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, blames for the religious turmoil.

Police arrested Atal Behari Vajpayee, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for trying to lead a march through Delhi protesting against the dismissal of three BJP-controlled state governments and the jailing of the party's two other senior leaders, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.

The government had banned demonstrations by the Hindu nationalist party, and, along with Mr Vajpayee, more than 1,500 BJP supporters were jailed yesterday in Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. In Delhi, police fired tear-gas at BJP supporters, but were driven back by thousands of protesters hurling stones. As darkness fell on the capital, Hindu militants attacked buses and cars.

'Instead of fighting the BJP politically, on an ideological plane, the government is using strong- arm tactics. We have decided to oppose this gagging,' said Mr Vajpayee, who courted arrest, daring the police to detain him. When that did not work, he surrendered to a troop of heavily armed riot police, who reluctantly took him in. Mr Vajpayee has vowed to go on a hunger-strike in prison.

Mr Vajpayee's fast will not shake the Congress government much. But the BJP is also mounting another assault against Mr Rao. The right-wing Hindu party, the largest opposition group in parliament, moved a no-confidence motion against Mr Rao. A vote is expected today.

The left-wing parties are expected to back Mr Rao, but his days could be numbered. Congress must present a new budget in Febuary, which will broaden the scope of Mr Rao's economic reforms. The Communists and other left-wing parties will oppose it, and this could topple Mr Rao.

The Prime Minister's demise may be hastened, though. While many Congress allies are revolted by the BJP's mixing of religion with politics, they are also dismayed with Mr Rao for arresting many of his right-wing Hindu opponents. But Mr Rao is also being squeezed by hardliners within his party, who want him to outlaw the BJP for inciting religious strife.

Since the sectarian unrest began on 6 December - sparked by the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu zealots who had been spurred on initially by the BJP - the government has banned five extremist groups and arrested more than 5,000 suspected Hindu and Muslim extremists. BJP officials claim that these harsh measures, rather than crushing the Hindu dissent, have only steeled their defiance against Mr Rao. 'We shall fight the government on all fronts,' Mr Vajpayee said.

As the political conflict spread, Mother Teresa made a pilgrimage yesterday to the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. There, she prayed for an end to the religious clashes between Hindus and Muslims, which have left more than 1,200 dead over the past two weeks. It was a prayer that went unanswered, at least by many of India's politicians.