Indira Gandhi twice resorted to massive displays of police or military power to try to bring order to an unruly India. The first time she ultimately lost her job; the second time, her life.

What had begun as a time-honored political maneuver of creating an alternative to a political foe had turned back on its makers.

When she declared a national emergency and took virtually dictatorial powers in 1975, the electorate gave its answer in a resounding defeat for her and her party. Even if India's turbulent politics had gotten more unruly than usual, India's voters decided that she had gone too far in wiping out civil liberties and jailing thousands.

The second time, when she called in the Army to quell a rebellion among the minority Sikhs, it cost her much more -- her life and perhaps her country's long-term stability.

Divide and rule had been part of the politics of the Subcontinent from British days and before, so it was no surprise to find loyalists to Gandhi backing an obscure Sikh sect in the rich and politically important Punjab when the most prominent Sikh party, the Akali Dal, was proving a challenge to her Congress Party after it returned to power in 1980.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was on the fringe of Sikh life, a village preacher and militant exponent of Sikh nationalism ignored by most of the Punjab's relatively prosperous farmers and small businessmen. But for reasons still unclear, he was chosen by Zail Singh -- then the Punjab chief minister and now India's president -- as a counter to the more established Akali party.

The strategy seems to have been to pick someone too obscure to become a real threat but, with the right backing, a man who could gain enough backing to split the more militant Sikh vote and leave the Punjab safe for Indira's Congress. It was a simple, presumably safe strategy.

Later, Bhindranwale was said to have received backing more directly from Sanjay Gandhi, Gandhi's younger son and her chosen heir apparent until he died in a plane crash in June, 1980, although it is unclear whether Indira Gandhi knew directly of her party's backing of Bhindranwale.

Somewhere, however, the strategy went all wrong. The man who was not supposed to be a threat became intoxicated with his own radical rhetoric, turning with a bitter vengeance on Gandhi. He called her that "Brahman girl who is prime minister and is given more status than the Sikh scripture."

"Peace and violence are from the same root. We are like a matchstick that is made of wood and is cold. But when you strike it, it flames," Bhindranwale said in the same interview with Washington Post South Asia correspondent William Claiborne in April 1983.

He had taken refuge with his well-armed supporters in Amritsar's Golden Temple, the sacred shrine of India's 12 million Sikhs, after being implicated in the murder of a Hindu newspaper editor and accused of a variety of security offenses.

Knowledgeable observers of Indian politics now say that the original political misjudgment that led to the anointing of Bhindranwale as a counter to Akali Dal had been compounded by failure to move against him when there was still a chance.

The murders and violence of 1982 and 1983 spawned by Bhindranwale's rhetoric had created a general sense of revulsion among most Sikhs, according to students of Punjab politics. Yet, the demands of the Sikh militants for greater political rights and recognition of Amritsar as a holy city also had begun to strike a responsive chord.

In the end, Indira Gandhi vacillated and did nothing of consequence.

The result was an upsurge in violence and the decision last June to send the Army into the Golden Temple. The government says 600 died in the resulting violence; others put the figure above a thousand.

But beyond the immediate casualties, the invasion touched a chord in Sikhs everywhere, creating militants in a way Bhindranwale never could have done.

When Beant Singh and Satwant Singh opened fire in Indira Gandhi's garden, they undoubtedly were thinking of the Golden Temple and not of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the politics of divide and rule.