THE tensions and violence in India's important state of Punjab deeply challenge the diplomacy and resources of the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Sikhs, who form a bare majority in Punjab, have been demanding greater religious recognition and political power - more than the Gandhi government is willing to provide. Sikh extremists now have taken the play away from more moderate Sikhs, and violent crimes are occurring frequently - Sikhs against Sikhs, as well as Sikhs vs. Hindus, who compose an overwhelming majority nationwide.
It is difficult to know which precise actions can best calm a long-troubled region. Yet the broad concept seems clear: The Gandhi government and India's Hindus should make sufficient concessions so that they will be accepted by moderate Sikhs. This would isolate extremist Sikhs and greatly lessen their influence. If they were to continue violent acts, these then could be dealt with as terrorist activities.
The Gandhi government cannot afford to respond primarily with force in an effort to end the unrest. Force likely would be met with force. India cannot have the Punjab, its most important granary, long torn by strife: It needs the food to feed the nation's 700 million citizens. And it is important to quiet the situation as promptly as possible so as not to exacerbate further the religious tensions that have existed since before the establishment of the Indian nation.
For their part, the Sikh extremists are most unwise in continuing the violence. If the Gandhi government were to decide to respond with force, the Sikhs, who number only 14 million, would be overwhelmed by the Hindus.
Despite the suspicions of the Indian government, specialists say there is little evidence thus far that Pakistan is supplying armaments to extremist Sikhs in the Punjab, which lies in northern India on the Pakistani border.
Sectarian tensions and violence are an old story for India. Antipathy between Muslims and Hindus led to establishment after World War II of two nations on the subcontinent - predominantly Hindu India, and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Over the years there have been bitter sectarian disputes in various sections of India, including Punjab.
In part the underlying tensions in various parts of the Indian nation are religious. But, say specialists, in part they also are evidence of the conflict between regional and national identities, a challenge many relatively new nations face.
A long-term need, then, is to strengthen the sense of national identity among the citizenry so that it becomes more important than the pull of any region.