Ethnic and religious tensions exert growing tug on Indian unity. Gandhi criticized for lack of new approaches in resolving unrest

Even as India today celebrates its 38th anniversary as a fully fledged parliamentary republic, the ethnic, religious, and political tensions that have long threatened the nation's cohesiveness are deepening. Communal infighting and insurgencies have plagued India since before it became independent in 1947. And many Indians have grown resigned to the violence as an inevitable aspect of a diverse and contentious democracy struggling to modernize.

But the present flare-up, analysts say, underscores the central government's long-standing inability to cope with the vendettas tearing at India's fragile union.

``There is a failure of political imagination on the part of the central leadership,'' says D.L. Sheth, a New Delhi political analyst who has written extensively on communalism. ``There is a deep-rooted fear of disintegration. The center wants to keep control, and it has done so - but with great turmoil and cost.''

Analysts say the problem is partly a result of:

Local and regional politicians' tendency to use vote-getting tactics that play up differences between Hindus, Muslims, and religious minorities.

The spread of fundamentalism in recent years among groups that have felt their identity threatened.

Government and police oppression that has often ended up fueling separatist movements.

Competition for scarce jobs in crowded cities and for limited resources in impoverished rural areas which has heightened social strains.

Political observers say Mr. Gandhi must move decisively to check the violence which is widely seen as another sign of his weakened rule. For months, his administration has been buffeted by corruption charges and humiliated by defeats in state elections.

Gandhi, who won an overwhelming mandate at the polls three years ago, faces fresh elections next year.

But beset with political problems, Gandhi is unlikely to take decisive action, observers predict. His administration and ruling Congress (I) party seem unwilling to allow limited autonomy to regional groups who chafe at the heavy hand of the central government.

In strategic and prosperous Punjab State, his celebrated 1985 accord with moderate Sikhs dissolved amid political infighting and growing militancy among Sikh youths. Last May, Gandhi dismissed the elected Sikh government and imposed harsh police measures to rout the terrorists. In 1987, more than 1,200 people died in communal violence in Punjab; in 1988 so far, more than 100 people have been killed. Despite pressure for new elections in Punjab, the prime minister seems intent on continuing central government rule.

Observers say that Gandhi's faltering political will has also allowed matters to get out of hand in:

The hill town of Darjeeling, where a ``Gurkhaland'' insurgency has worsened as militants of Nepalese descent unleashed a spate of bombings, ambushes, and attacks on government officials.

Northeastern Tripura State, where tribals have lashed out at migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, killing dozens of people in savage raids:

Eastern India, where the smoldering movement for a ``Jharkhand'' state has revived among tribal people disillusioned with the governments in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh states.

Andhra Pradesh State, where economic tensions have sparked feuding between the traditional landowner caste and the landless.

Some New Delhi political observers believe the Gurkhaland agitation may be spiraling out of control. The government has not dealt with the Nepalese Indians' claims of discrimination and demand for jobs in the rich, tea-growing area. Instead, it has skirmished with the Marxist-led government of West Bengal State, where Darjeeling is located, and the two antagonists have pinned the blame on each other.

In Tripura too, tribal rebels gained strength in the past two years as Gandhi and the leftist state government sparred. However, observers say a recent agreement between the two governments to bury their differences and band together against the rebels is an encouraging sign.

Elsewhere, though, the problems are more difficult. In poorer states, the violence stems from age-old caste animosities and the economic gulf between the rich and poor, analysts say.

Large landholders are in a constant war with landless tribal people, driving the poor to extremist organizations. In the 1960s, a Marxist rebellion broke out in the West Bengal town of Naxalbari and was brutally suppressed by the government. The outbreak gave its name to a communist movement which continues today in many rural areas.

``There is a continuing intolerance among the landlords and the upper class people,'' says Gobinda Mukhoty, a prominent Indian civil rights activist. ``This is reflected in intolerance at the government level too.''

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