IT IS INTERESTING to observe the levels of response to the ethnic violence that is estimated to have taken as many as 1,000 lives recently in India's state of Assam. In the first reaction, prominent in journalistic accounts, the violence is said to be a phenomenon with "roots" in the religious, ethnic and other tensions common to the area. There is no doubt a sense in which this is true, but it is not a sense that truly illuminates the tragedy, or one that explains why in so many other situations, in India and elsewhere, similar tensions have been contained.

On the political level, meanwhile, India is having the kind of intense argument that becomes the world's largest democracy. The opposition charges that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi negligently if not cynically organized elections in Assam for her party's benefit--elections in which illegal aliens could vote--notwithstanding tensions created by the influx of nearly a million of those aliens from neighboring Bangladesh. The government responds that it could not allow the threat of disorder to subvert the democratic process. Outsiders will be watching closely to see how this essential argument over political responsibility comes out.

But it is on the moral level that the debate is most telling. Would she and her government accept moral responsibility for the tragedy? reporters asked Mrs. Gandhi, who was touring Assam. "Why should we? It is the agitators who are responsible," she replied. It was a disappointing response. Those who died, after all, were presumably under the protection of Indian law--and some of them were Indian citizens. In a democracy, the state possesses authority precisely to prevent "agitators" from taking the law into their own hands. Israel has recently given an example of the degree of responsibility that a serious democracy accepts in such a tragedy even when neither the perpetrators nor the victims are its citizens. Against this standard, other self-respecting democracies should be prepared to be judged.