IT WAS A HOT NIGHT in early June 1984 when India entered a period that was to prove to be among the greatest of tests to its national unity in almost four decades of independence. Militant Sikhs had fortified their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The Indian Army had been called in to get them out.

Between 10 and 10:30 on the evening of June 5 Major General K.S. Brar, the operational commander of the Indian Army forces, decided he had little alternative but to attack the Golden Temple. The next few minutes, as reported by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob in their vivid history of contemporary India, Amritsar. Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle, make very dramatic reading:

"Commandos from the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, wearing black denims, were ordered to run down the steps under the clock tower onto the parikrama, or pavement, turn right and move as quickly as they could the edge of the scared tank to the Akel Takht (Sacred Throne)," Tully and Jacob begin their account of the attack. "But as the paratroopers entered the main gateway of the Temple, they were mown down. Most of the casualties were caused by Sikhs with light machine guns who were hiding on either side of the steps leading down to the parikrama. The few commandos who did get down the steps were driven back by a barrage of fire from the buildings on the south side of the sacred pool."

"In the control room, in the house on the opposite side of the clock-tower square," they continue, "Major General Brar was waiting anxiously with his two superior officers to hear that the commandos had established positions inside the complex. When no report came through, he was heard over the command network saying, 'You bastards, why don't you go in?' " In the ensuing firefight scores of people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded.

For the following five months India was torn by spasms of violence stemming from the temple's invasion. A country built on a foundation of democratic rule suddenly found itself using its army to beat back a challenge to national unity. Then, as anger among the disaffected minority grew, the subcontinent saw unprecedented events unfold, India's prime minister was assassinated, there were seemingly organized pogroms against the kinsmen of her killers; the proud Indian Army itself was shaken by mutinies.

ANY COUNTRY with more than 700 million people, severe poverty and a patchwork of languages, ethnic groups and religions will have more than its share of trouble. For the most part, however, India has managed to contain and channel unrest. Skillful leadership seemed to hold sway -- until Indira Gandhi and India's militant Sikhs squared off. Political acumen suddenly gave way to political opportunism, and misjudgment, on both sides. They were failures which ultimately cost Mrs. Gandhi her life, alienated the vibrant Sikh community and raised questions about her country's future, questions that have not yet been laid to rest.

In Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle two veteran journalists for the BBC have pieced together a fastmoving narrative about the political maneuvering, missed opportunities, failed judgments, duplicity and the military and civil violence that shook India so deeply.

Few who chronicle history have such rich material with which to work as Tully and Jacob. The main actors were Indira Gandhi, who often waited to make decisions, and this time waited too long, and Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the ambitious, charismatic, and apparently ruthless leader of militant Sikhdom, who orchestrated a campaign of rebellion that in the end left both him and his chief protagonist dead.

Supporting them were a large cast of lesser characters -- political opportunists, sincere if ineffectual religious leaders and military commanders thrown into a no-win situation.

At one level, the story of this historical drama is a simple one, revolving about the efforts of a minority community, the Sikhs, to carvo carve out a place in a multiethnic society dominated by a different religious community, the Hindus. To help the reader along, Tully and Jacob give a simple, but not simplistic, history of the often strained relations between the two communities.

At another level, however, the plot becomes much more complicated, with the Sikh community hopelessly divided and Indian leadership, as represented by Mrs. Gandhi, seemingly playing upon that division for its own political ends. Using well-tested tactics of divide and rule learned from the British colonial era, Mrs. Gandhi and her political advisers built up the political firebrand Bhindranwale as a counterweight to traditional Sikh leadership only to find that the fires of religious fundamentalism can engulf those who ignite them.

In their careful tracing of the negotiations between the Sikh leadership and the government in New Delhi, however, the authors show how indecisiveness, fear and occasional downright incompetence on the part of the traditional Sikh leadership were as much to blame for thr tragic events of 1984 as the actions of Mrs. Gandhi and her advisers. The logical incongruity of trying to blame the Sikhs for not resolving a situation they themselves did not wholly create remains unresolved. The results of that unbridgeable political divide, however, are quite clear. The Amritsar affair has left wounds too deep to heal quickly, if ever.

There are occasional passages of moralistic preaching in this volume that detract from its otherwise fastpaced but ostensibly neutral treatment of complex issues. Nevertheless, those who found themselves captivated by television's recent treatment of the onset of Indian independence will discover through this modest-length book that India's history since independence has as much, if not more, drama.