The Indian government yesterday filed suit in federal court in New York against Union Carbide Corp., accusing it of "malicious" conduct and "wanton disregard" for the safety of its citizens in the lethal poison gas leak in Bhopal last December.

The action, just a few days after Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rejected as inadequate a Carbide offer to settle the case, represents a major blow to the company's efforts to keep the Bhopal dispute out of the U.S. court system, where it would likely be forced to pay higher damages than in India, a number of legal experts and lawyers involved in the case said yesterday.

The suit contends that the magnitude of the Bhopal disaster was so enormous that the Indian government cannot yet estimate the ultimate damages or even the total number of victims. The current "recorded death toll" at Bhopal is 1,700 persons, with another 200,000 injuries, the government asserted in the suit.

But the suit said India would seek both compensatory damages for all the victims and punitive damages "sufficient to deter Union Carbide and any other multinational corporation" from engaging in similar conduct in the future.

The suit, contrary to Carbide's claims that the Indian managers of the Bhopal plant were at fault, blames instead corporate officers in the United States for failing to design and construct a safe plant and allowing "unreasonably dangerous and defective plant conditions" that allowed a cloud of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) to leak out over the city of Bhopal on the morning of Dec. 3.

"Such conduct on the part of Defendant Union Carbide, in light of its knowledge of the lethal properties of MIC, was unlawful, willful, malicious and reprehensible . . . " the suit said.

A lawyer for Carbide criticized the Indian government's action as a "strange way to settle" the case and said it would "unquestionably" result in a full-fledged legal defense that could drag on for years and delay any money going to the victims.

"They were not well advised to bring the lawsuit," said Bud Holman, the lead lawyer for Carbide with the New York firm of Kelly, Drye & Warren.

Carbide, which has its headquarters in Danbury, Conn., owns 50.1 percent of Union Carbide India Ltd., the firm that owned the Bhopal pesticide plant.

But "we're saying it doesn't matter whether Carbide owned 50 percent of that plant or one percent or 100 percent," said Bruce A. Finzen, a lawyer with the Minneapolis firm of Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan, which is representing the Indian government in the case. "It was their operation. They set it in motion. They're responsible."

The filing of the suit comes a week before an April 16 pretrial hearing scheduled by U.S. District Judge John Keenan in New York on more than 35 lawsuits that have been filed against Carbide by U.S. lawyers on behalf of Indian victims of the disaster. By filing its suit yesterday, the Indian government will be able to have its own claims consolidated with those of the private plaintiffs, a number of lawyers involved in the case said yesterday.

According to some Indian press accounts, Carbide recently offered to pay the Indian government about $200 million in damages spread out over 35 years, a sum that one of the lawyers representing private plaintiffs in the case dismissed as "nickels and dimes."

A Carbide spokesman declined to comment on that report yesterday. But last week, Prime Minister Gandhi blasted the company in an interview with the Financial Times of London, charging that Carbide was "trying to get away by giving very small compensation and hiding behind legalities."

Moreover, contrary to earlier expectations, the Indian government's suit says it does not intend to supplant -- and would even work "along with" -- the private lawsuits that already have been filed.

Earlier yesterday, an Indian lawyer representing the more than 100 U.S. lawyers who have filed those suits, filed a petition with the Indian Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance recently passed by the Indian Parliament giving the government exclusive right to represent Bhopal victims.

But after hearing the actual language of the suit, a spokesman for the U.S. lawyers praised the government's action. In addition, he said it would prove to be an enormous boost to the U.S. lawyers' argument that the case should be heard in the United States rather than India.

"I'm very encouraged," said Stanley Chesley, the co-chairman of a steering committee of the U.S. lawyers. "Here we have the Indian government saying they don't want the case to be heard over there. They want it to be heard here. That's strong medicine."

The filing of the suit comes barely three weeks after Carbide released its own internal report on the Bhopal disaster and said it had discovered a series of "critical" violations of company safety procedures at the Bhopal plant, including the failure to fix a key refrigeration system that had been broken for months. But the company said that safety was "a local issue" and the responsibility for correcting such conditions was with the Indian managers, not corporate officials in Danbury.