There is a cultural chasm between the prosperous Sikh farmers who are the backbone of northern India's farm economy and the militant Sikh nationalists who have used violence and assassination to further their demands for an independent Sikh state.

Sikh farmers in the Punjab, the nation's breadbasket and India's richest state, are middle-class exemplars of respectability. Typically, they raise wheat on 20 to 30 acres of land. They own a tractor, perhaps even a television set. One longtime diplomatic observer of India compares their values to those of Midwestern American farmers.

The militants, on the other hand, have turned to a violent fundamentalism in the past two years that they say justifies scores of professionally executed vengeance killings and their demand for their own state called Khalistan.

Last June, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi provided a cause to unite all of India's 15 million Sikhs. When Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhs across the Subcontinent were affronted by the desecration of their religion's holiest shrine.

That affront has fanned Sikh resentment throughout this past summer and it offers a rationale for understanding the assassination of Gandhi by her own bodyguards, who were reported by Indian officials to be Sikhs.

"It is impossible to overestimate the feeling of hurt among Indian Sikhs after the attack," said a diplomat who has spent much of his life in India. The attack heavily damaged the Golden Temple complex. The government's official count said 600 people were killed, although other estimates of the death toll reached 1,000.

The Army's four-month occupation of the Punjab, which ended in early October, exacerbated that feeling of hurt. There were stories in Amritsar of Army abuses, ranging from petty thefts to mass rapes. While some of these seem to have been exaggerated by Sikh extremists, the Army presence served to heighten tensions between the Sikh majority and Hindus, who constitute 48 percent of the state's population.

Sikhs make up only 2 percent of India's vast population. But members of the sect, founded in the 16th century as an alternative to Hinduism and Islam, have assumed disproportionately important roles in Indian society. Indian President Zail Singh is a Sikh, as are many other prominent government officials. A tradition of Sikh military service, developed when they fought Moslem Moguls in the 17th century, continues with Sikhs holding many top ranks in the armed forces.

Traditional Sikhs wear steel bracelets, carry short ceremonial daggers and leave their hair and beards uncut. Male Sikhs all take the name Singh -- meaning lion.

The mainstream Sikh political party, Akali Dal, began agitating in 1982 for a greater share for Punjab of land and water resources from neighboring states and for a ban on meat, cigarettes and liquor from the area of the Golden Temple.

It was a smaller group of radical Sikhs, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who advocated a separate Sikh state. Bhindranwale died in the June attack on the Golden Temple. Sikhs United By Raid on Golden Temple By Blaine Harden Washington Post Foreign Service

There is a cultural chasm between the prosperous Sikh farmers who are the backbone of northern India's farm economy and the militant Sikh nationalists who have used violence and assassination to further their demands for an independent Sikh state.

Sikh farmers in the Punjab, the nation's breadbasket and India's richest state, are middle-class exemplars of respectability. Typically, they raise wheat on 20 to 30 acres of land. They own a tractor, perhaps even a television set. One longtime diplomatic observer of India compares their values to those of Midwestern American farmers.

The militants, on the other hand, have turned to a violent fundamentalism in the past two years that they say justifies scores of professionally executed vengeance killings and their demand for their own state called Khalistan.

Last June, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi provided a cause to unite all of India's 15 million Sikhs. When Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhs across the Subcontinent were affronted by the desecration of their religion's holiest shrine.

That affront has fanned Sikh resentment throughout this past summer and it offers a rationale for understanding the assassination of Gandhi by her own bodyguards, who were reported by Indian officials to be Sikhs.

"It is impossible to overestimate the feeling of hurt among Indian Sikhs after the attack," said a diplomat who has spent much of his life in India. The attack heavily damaged the Golden Temple complex. The government's official count said 600 people were killed, although other estimates of the death toll reached 1,000.

The Army's four-month occupation of the Punjab, which ended in early October, exacerbated that feeling of hurt. There were stories in Amritsar of Army abuses, ranging from petty thefts to mass rapes. While some of these seem to have been exaggerated by Sikh extremists, the Army presence served to heighten tensions between the Sikh majority and Hindus, who constitute 48 percent of the state's population.

Sikhs make up only 2 percent of India's vast population. But members of the sect, founded in the 16th century as an alternative to Hinduism and Islam, have assumed disproportionately important roles in Indian society. Indian President Zail Singh is a Sikh, as are many other prominent government officials. A tradition of Sikh military service, developed when they fought Moslem Moguls in the 17th century, continues with Sikhs holding many top ranks in the armed forces.

Traditional Sikhs wear steel bracelets, carry short ceremonial daggers and leave their hair and beards uncut. Male Sikhs all take the name Singh -- meaning lion.

The mainstream Sikh political party, Akali Dal, began agitating in 1982 for a greater share for Punjab of land and water resources from neighboring states and for a ban on meat, cigarettes and liquor from the area of the Golden Temple.

It was a smaller group of radical Sikhs, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who advocated a separate Sikh state. Bhindranwale died in the June attack on the Golden Temple.