THE ATTACKS on Sikhs in many Indian cities, the lynchings, the beatings, the arson, exposed a national propensity for mass violence and vigilantism. These attacks were committed by Hindus avenging the assassination of Indira Gandhi by some of her Sikh guards. They represent a turn to an ethnic standard of justice that itself does grave violence to the idea of India as a democracy, a country ruled by law and a unitary state.

Actually, it was not a turn but a return to an ethnic standard, since India, along with its dedication to religion and nonviolence, has a tradition of sectarian and communal conflict. This is both a source of national tragedy and a sharp affront to the imperatives of national unity.

In the first days, the new, appointed prime minister, Mrs. Gandhi's son Rajiv, was harshly criticized for failing to assert leadership and check the carnage. Some of the criticism seemed to yield to an appreciation of his burden and of the common stake in his effective rule. But he is not getting much of a honeymoon. The violence and the threats persist.

A discussion proceeds on whether his mother by her firmness brought necessary strength to the central government or whether by her arbitrariness she took strength away. In any event, Rajiv Gandhi is not Indira Gandhi: he is starting out in a more consensus-seeking, perhaps more diffident style. The elections previously scheduled in January appear even more necessary now. Rajiv Gandhi needs a mandate, and if India is to be ruled by a dynasty -- his grandfather as well as mother ruled earlier -- it must be by popular choice.

It is the curse of many "new" nations that successions force the question of whether the nation will hang together. In India's case, some Sikhs now demand autonomy, but most others -- and most other Indians -- appear to accept the permanence and value of their ties to a larger India, the difficulty of carving a single political unit out of a minority dispersed both geographically and socially, and the danger of a precedent of ethnic unraveling.

American policy should focus on supporting the integrity of India during its difficult passage, not on trying to milk the occasion for short-term foreign policy gain, as the Kremlin is now nastily trying to do. India's balance and good health are more important to the United States than any little tilt the American way.