Amid the charred hulks of bicycle rickshaws and burned-out shanties of Block 32 of the dismal Trilokpuri resettlement colony, a pariah dog gnawed hungrily at the little flesh remaining on a human leg.
Small children squatted in the dust and watched with eyes that betrayed no emotion other than mild annoyance at the flies attracted by the remnants of death. Nearby, low-slung mud huts had been transformed by sheets of flames into the image of open graves.
Four women, dressed in gaily colored saris and giggling with excitement, rushed from door to door through the warren of tiny hovels. Among the blackened homes of nearly 100 Sikhs murdered Friday night here, the women were looking for newly available housing.
Three days ago, Block 32, tucked away in a forlorn corner of this slum just outside the capital across the Yamuna River, was unknown to most New Delhi dwellers, save for the impoverished day laborers, rickshaw pullers and household servants who live there and commute daily to the capital.
But when historians scrutinize the inhumanity that swept through India for four long days following the assassination Wednesday of prime minister Indira Gandhi, it may become a benchmark.
It presents a microcosm of the culture of communal violence of a vast nation that has been perceived from ancient times as a seat of spiritual tranquility, and was led to independence by an apostle of nonviolence.
Trilokpuri came into being as an instant slum, created, paradoxically, by the slain prime minister's late son, Sanjay. His controversial resettlement scheme moved hundreds of thousands of destitute slum dwellers out of the old section of New Delhi during the 1975-1977 emergency period to colonies erected on the eastern fringe of the capital.
Its residents live mostly in mud huts and jhuggies, or makeshift lean-tos. The more enterprising of them -- including Sikhs whose scooter-rickshaws ply the streets of the capital -- built substantial brick bungalows.
The 5,000 Sikhs of Trilokpuri are gone now, nearly 100 of them killed Friday night. The rest fled to refugee camps across the river. They say that when they leave the camps they will never return to Trilokpuri, because if they do, they will be killed.
The Hindus of the resettlement colony are still here, and they offer an insight into how easily the flames of communal hatred are fanned in secular India.
Residents said that the night after Gandhi was assassinated outside her home by two Sikh security guards, the Sikhs of Trilokpuri celebrated by lighting candles, exploding fireworks and distributing sweets, a traditional Indian practice on joyous occasions. The Sikhs who survived the massacre deny that they exhibited any happiness over the assassination. They say they immediately recognized its implications and deliberately kept a low profile.
Hindus in Trilokpuri said that they gathered before some Sikh houses and demanded an end to the celebrations, but that the Sikhs displayed swords and told them to go away.
On Thursday night, the local residents said, a gang of young goondas, or toughs, armed themselves with staves, knives and cans of kerosene, but for reasons that nobody could explain, did not attack the cluster of Sikh houses in Block 32.
The next night, however, they went on a rampage of burning, killing and looting that lasted several hours. The police, some of them said, made no effort to intervene.
Sikhs in the refugee camps told of friends and relatives being tied hand and foot with the fabric of their own rolled turbans, soaked with kerosene and burned alive. Others said some victims were mutilated in front of their families. A few successfully begged for their lives and got off with a beating after having their hair and beards cut off. The streets of Block 32 were littered today with remnants of shorn hair.
Similar violence took place in the adjacent resettlement colony of Kalayanpuri, where residents said dozens of Sikhs were murdered.
Patti Ram, a sweeper from Kalayanpuri, said that when a Sikh bus driver whose vehicle had been burned fired his rifle at a Hindu mob, the Hindus doused his house with kerosene and set it afire with seven persons inside.
Indians have long sought, without much success, an answer to the question of why their society, for all its veneer of spiritualism, has flashes of barbarism that revolt civilized people here and abroad. They also ask why carnage on an enormous scale is absorbed without permanently crippling effects on the institutions that keep the society intact.
Social scientists frequently point to the numerous disparities of religion and caste as the basis of a communal volcano that they say inevitably erupts in one segment or another under the pressure of daily living from the weight of poverty, overpopulation and illiteracy.
One sociologist at the Delhi School of Economics voiced the opinion that political evolution is the cause of much of India's violence.
"In India, as in other countries, violence is the reaction of a group of people who are rejecting a system and find themselves trying to absorb the shocks of a new one. . . As an independent nation, we have to pass the violence vortex before we learn to exist in peace and harmony," he said, adding that in the case of India, the process may be particularly acute because of old values and systems stretching back thousands of years.
But a recurring theme of analysts of the culture of communal violence is that revulsion at massacres fired by religious hatred may have been diluted over time by repetition.
India seems to have an infinite capacity for absorbing catastrophes of a magnitude that would crumble most democracies, social scientists note, and after a while death tolls become relative.
At independence in 1947, partition of the Subcontinent into Pakistan and India resulted in the migration of 10 million Hindu, Moslem and Sikh refugees both ways across the borders, and more than half a million people were killed during the accompanying carnage.
In 1969, 3,000 persons died in Hindu-Moslem rioting in Ahmedabad, and in February of last year, about 4,000 were killed in massacres in the far northeastern state of Assam during election fighting between indigenous Hindus and immigrants, mostly Moslem, from Bangladesh.
Each year, there are about 400 major communal riots nationwide, and countless other incidents of sectarian violence that are barely recorded in Indian newspapers. At the government's behest, the newspapers almost never identify the rioting sides by religion so as not to inflame tensions, but Indian readers know who the participants are when they read that "one community was attacked by another." If familiarity with communal violence inures Indians to it, Trilokpuri serves as an illustration of the hardening.
Life went on as usual today in the narrow, dusty streets where nearly 100 persons died Friday night by official count -- local residents said 200 were killed -- and the signs of death that still had not been removed three days later did not seem to attract as much attention as three foreign visitors walking through the scene.
A young Hindu stood amid the ruins of the Sikh homes and showed no expression as he said, "They won't be back. There is no chance they will be back."