Terrorism and assassination, never far from the surface in a country riven by religious and social divisions, are threatening to push India from the politics of consensus and the ballot box to the politics of violence.

If supporters of moderation among the Sikhs of Punjab step for ward to pick up the thread of political dialogue that was broken when their main spokesman, Sant (Saint) Harchand Singh Longowal, was assassinated earlier this week, India could pull back from this political abyss as it has in the past.

If the heretofore silent moderates are intimidated by the terrorist tactics of their more militant coreligionists, the cycle of confrontation will be difficult to break.

It is a cycle that perhaps can be traced to miscalculation on the part of the government more than to the Sikhs themselves, miscalculation that ultimately cost Indira Gandhi her life and now challenges the political skill of her son and successor, Rajiv.

By attempting to capture control of Punjab politics through exploiting divisions within the Sikh community in 1980, Mrs. Gandhi triggered a cycle of violence that eventually led to the order for the Army to storm Sikhdom's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple complex, in June 1984, shredding the last remnants of political dialogue.

Violence and confrontation long have been part of Indian politics, but longtime observers of the country's modern development say there is a critical difference in the current round.

The Hindu-Moslem violence that exploded at the country's independence was barely contained, and only after it led to the assassination of the apostle of nonviolence, Mohandas K. Gandhi, by a Hindu fundamentalist.

Regional tensions, whether provoked by Tamil-speakers in the country's south, Communists in Bengal or the Assamese in the geopolitically sensitive northeast, have been calmed only after the severest of strains to national unity. Yet, the system has been elastic enough to allow for political accord.

Even the one aberration, Indira Gandhi's period of emergency rule from 1975 to 1977, ended with the ballot and not the bullet.

And now, perhaps in the greatest test since those early days of freedom from British colonial rule, the push for increased political, religious and economic rights by a group making up 2 percent of the country's 700 million people has once again brought this largest of the world's democratic systems to a critical juncture.

In the last three years of agitation by India's Sikhs, about 2,000 people have been slain in their native Punjab; Indira Gandhi has been assassinated, leading to a frenzy of Hindu-Sikh killing; and now perhaps the key Sikh moderate leader has been killed by militant coreligionists.

When the body of Longowal burned in the cremation fire Wednesday, the smoke carried with it the faint hopes for an imminent settlement of the confrontation between the Sikhs of Punjab and the Gandhi government in New Delhi.

At one level, the Punjab confrontation can be viewed as another manifestation of India's generational change, the coming of age of a large segment of the country's population that has no memory of the independence era and the national feelings it engendered. Their loyalties, instead, are to regional or linguistic groupings.

What's more, it is a better-educated populace, enjoying some of the fruits of sustained economic growth -- two strains that come together in a quest for more, sooner rather than later.

The mix has been an explosive one and feeds into another key factor in modern India's history.

Gandhi's assassination in 1948 sharply underscored a fundamental but often misunderstood characteristic of Indian politics: It is prone to violence. Gandhi, by power of personal example and appeal to an underlying cultural strain, was able to channel the nationalist movement into a nonviolent course. But even he ultimately fell to the politics of violence.

Since his death, crises have been solved and violence defused by a different tactic, that of political dialogue and compromise.

"The key to all the earlier challenges to the nation's unity -- in the Gujarat-Maharashtra split, in the creation of Tamil Nadu, whatever -- is that through it all, there was a cohesive force among the dissidents, and the government worked to keep a dialogue going," said one longtime observer of the Indian political scene. "In Punjab, the political dialogue broke down."

The emergence of a young national leader in the person of Rajiv Gandhi and an identifiable representative of the moderate Sikh majority in the person of Longowal had rekindled hope that the old formula was being revived.

Longowal's assassination has severely damaged those optimistic hopes. Whether they are dead only for the time being will be decided in the turbulent politics of Punjab in the days and weeks to come, and that is not a fertile testing ground.

The region's normal violence-prone character -- there are districts in Punjab that have the highest murder rates in the world -- has been exacerbated by the political overlay. The terrorist intimidation that broke out in the early stages of the Punjab crisis, when it was a Sikh-Sikh affair, has come full circle in the assassination of Longowal.

The key question now is whether the government can find anybody who can speak for a Sikh majority and, if it does, whether that majority would accept the kind of concessions New Delhi would be willing to offer.

Some argue that large numbers of moderates who have been unwilling to step forward in the past now will be so angered by this latest manifestation of politics by the gun that they will go public and overwhelm the militant wing of Sikh politics.

As noted Sikh journalist Kushwant Singh said this week in New Delhi, "This murder will create a kind of revulsion for terrorists. The only good which has emerged from this murder is the further isolation of the terrorists."

There is an equally forceful counterargument: The terrorist tactics of the militants will force the silent moderates even farther into the background.

As one observer put it:

"Who's going to step forward into the sniper's scope?"