New Delhi — The pattern has become all too familiar. Two young men, armed with 9-mm automatic Mausers or Sten guns, roar into a village or public place on motorbike. They open fire, fell their target, then disappear without hinderance, whether at high noon or the middle of the night.
Each day in India's beleaguered northern state of the Punjab people die violently, as Sikhs kill Hindus, Hindus kill Sikhs, and Sikhs now kill each other. Some 170 people have died so far this year in a continuing mayhem that is posing one of the most formidable challenges to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a long political career.
Cynicism is such that no one expects the assassins to be caught - certainly not prosecuted, as anarchy supersedes the rule of law. Officials at the Home Ministry in New Delhi apathetically concede that, of the 882 people who have been arrested in connection with the Punjab's growing terrorism over the past three years, only eight have been prosecuted before courts of law.
The dithering of the central government, the increasingly well-planned vengeance killings, and an open split within Sikh ranks have led to fears that the Punjab - wealthiest of all Indian states - faces the prospect of open-ended sectarian violence, similar to that of Northern Ireland.
One has only to go to Amritsar's Golden Temple, the Sikhs's holiest shrine, to recognize these fears.
Camped inside are some 500 Sikh militants who are wanted by the police. They are charged with murder, sabotage, robberies, and related crimes. They protest their innocence, claiming they have killed only in self-defense. Theirs is a holy war, they say.
Their language is that of the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran and the Arab world. Their protest: the fear that their numbers and their identity run the risk of becoming extinct.
A three-year-old campaign by the Sikhs of the Punjab for religious recognition, for a state capital of their own, and for a more equitable portion of river water - now shared with adjoining states - has been transformed into a fervent religious movement, demanding a large measure of political autonomy.
It tolerates no concessions. It dispenses its own form of justice to Sikhs considered infidels. At the core of the movement are a 37-year-old preacher, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and a dedicated core of student aides. As Iran's Islamic fundamentalists rebelled against Western influence imported by the Shah, so Bhindranwale and those who surround him have, to a great extent, rebelled against the very affluence the Sikhs of the Punjab have bred.
Theirs is the land of the ''green revolution,'' producing 60 percent of the country's critical stockpiles of food.
Theirs is the state, commanding a strategic opening to Pakistan on the west, that has electricity in every village and, per capita, the nation's largest number of televisions, cars, refrigerators, and video sets.
The per-capita income in the Punjab is one-third higher than the Indian average: 85 percent of the Punjab's land is irrigated, compared with the national average of 26 percent.
Only a decade ago, the Sikhs were 57 percent of the Punjab's population. Today they are only 52 percent. For the ''green revolution'' has bred an unprecedented affluence: It has created jobs. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Hindus have migrated there, fleeing the unrelenting poverty of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in particular.
The wealthy Sikh farmers of the Punjab import Hindu labor to harvest the spring wheat crop. Many of these workers stay on in the Punjab. Today 5,000 of Amritsar's rickshaw drivers come from the state of Bihar.
The same wealthy Sikh farmers send their sons to university in Europe and the United States. The sons return to India shorn of turban and beard - two of the five physical accouterments mandatory for every Sikh.
They also use tobacco, which the Sikh religion disdains.
''We are not so unlike the forces behind the Iranian people's revolution,'' a Sikh student leader told me during a recent visit to Amritsar.
But why the wanton violence, the arbitrary killings? Would there not, in the other states of India, be a predictable, anti-Sikh backlash?
His answer was chilling. The violence was highly contrived. The Sikhs wanted a Hindu backlash. They wanted the Hindus of the Punjab to flee the beleaguered state. And even more important, perhaps, they wanted the Sikhs of the diaspora, whether in New Delhi, Haryana, or wherever else they may be, to be forced to return to the Punjab, transforming it into that long-coveted, totally Sikh state.
After festering for months, tension between Sant Bhindranwale's fundamentalists and the more moderate voices within the Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, is out in the open.
Akali Dal members, since an all-party congress at the end of last month, have begun defecting to Sant Bhindranwale - whether out off conviction or fear - in unprecedented numbers.
The moderate voices within the Akali had been the only tenuous hope for a negotiated settlement. Today, in the view of government negotiators, little hope is left.
The normally bouyant Punjab economy is estimated to have lost $1.2 billion during the fiscal year ending in March as a result of decreased investor confidence. And more economic instability may lie ahead.
The spring wheat harvest in the Punjab, now under way, could be badly hit by the reluctance of migrant Hindu labor to venture into the state. Normally, up to 300,000 laborers from the northern Hindu belt arrive in truck caravans and atop the roofs of trains.
An Indian newspaper survey suggests that the labor force could be down by 40 percent this year. If that happens, it could be the first time that the implications of the Punjab upheaval will be felt nationwide.
If the wheat stocks do not arrive in the grain markets on time, India could have a food problem. And for Mrs. Gandhi in an election year, food problems do not translate into electoral gains.
Thus far the prime minister, whose intolerance of opposition is as implacable as her once-uncanny political instinct once was, has apparently decided to wait the Punjab crisis out.
It is, to a great extent, in the view of diplomatic officials, a crisis which she herself has spawned. Three times during the last two years she had reached a negotiated settlement with the moderate leadership of the Akali Dal. Each time, at the 11th hour, the government pulled back.
She is now faced with unenviable options.
* She could invade the Golden Temple and arrest Bhindranwale and his militants. Such a course of action would undoubtedly permanently alienate even the more moderate Sikhs.
* She could negotiate a political solution, though the stakes and demands become higher each day. The result: the collapse of her Hindu vote, and throughout the complex aggregate of India, the opening of regional Pandora's boxes.
The Sikh demands - devolving power from a highly centralized, central government to India's 22 states - are one of the key issues that the prime minister, in her 20-year career, has always refused to tackle.
According to advisers, she firmly believes that above and beyond her own electoral prospects, what is really at stake is a united, secular Indian democracy.
The tragedy, in the view of many, is that the Punjab killings need never have happened. Sant Bhindranwale is the creation of Mrs. Gandhi's National Congress-I party politics, not of the Akali Dal's.
When the Akalis gained power in the Punjab in the 1977 elections, Bhindranwale, with the encouragement of Mrs. Gandhi's late son, Sanjay, and Zail Singh, now President of India, was put forward to split the Akali movement.
Today Bhindranwale has certainly succeeded where, in 1977, he failed.
And he is supremely confident knowing that Indian elections must be held this year.