HISAR, INDIA -- The young Hindu stood amid the circle of mourners, his voice low but angry, his eyes red from tears.

"The government should give the same response to these terrorists, so they wouldn't do it any more. When they capture these guys, they should take them to a public place where everyone can see and hang them," said Ashok Popli. The others nodded their approval.

Popli and other relatives of 30-year-old Varendra Kumar Mehta, one of 38 people gunned down Tuesday night by apparent Sikh extremists on a lonely road about 40 miles north of this prosperous farming center in Haryana state, said they understood the violent reaction of fellow townspeople against Sikhs in Hisar.

"Until you express your anger, how will the government know?" said R.K. Pant, a brother-in-law of Mehta. A few doors up the street, the pavement was black, grim evidence of an attack by an angry mob on the home of a Sikh neighbor. Most of its contents were burned or looted.

All across Hisar on Wednesday, homes, shops and religious places of the city's estimated 3,000 Sikhs were burned and looted in a frenzy of anger brought under control only when Army troops intervened.

Behind headlines that reported bus massacres and backlashes, anger and fear, are individual tales of innocent people caught up in a seemingly endless web of violence that is putting India's social cohesion to the test and bringing sharp criticism from both sides for the already beleaguered government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The scene in the intense premonsoon heat outside the prosperous-looking home of the Mehtas was repeated time and again across the arid plains of northern India as the bodies of the 72 victims of terrorists' guns were brought home to parents, wives, children and relatives wrenchingly stripped of a loved one.

And often, as the bodies were returned or as word of the killings spread, violent mobs took to the streets, seeking out equally innocent Sikhs. The government says six have died, but the true numbers probably are higher, observers say.

Many of the community's Sikhs, out of fear, were huddled in a temple here and refused to leave, and Hindus in shops and along the streets warned that Wednesday's violence was only a small example of what would happen if there are more such massacres.

That there will be more is the fear of many in government who admit that no amount of police can stop militants determined to use terrorist tactics. The 72 people killed on three buses in two incidents in a 24-hour period last week were stark evidence that earlier warnings by officials were not hollow.

Sikh extremists seeking an independent homeland in Punjab, where about 10 million of the state's 16.6 million people are Sikhs, have resorted to terrorist tactics with growing frequency as they seek to drive Hindus out of the state and to provoke backlashes elsewhere that will force Sikhs to come to Punjab. Sikhs contend that others may be adopting similar tactics for their own political ends, seeking to lay the blame upon the Sikhs. Whatever the motivation, for the victims there is little difference.

Saroop Singh is 70, a bear of a man who saw his life shattered 40 years ago when he escaped from Pakistan with nothing in the vicious rioting that followed the partition of British India into today's India and Pakistan.

Over the years he built a good life for himself in Hisar, becoming one of the area's main fuel suppliers to the Army and police as well as service stations. Neither his status nor his contacts with officials helped him, however, when the mobs came on Wednesday.

"They came to my house in the morning and looted everything and burned what couldn't be looted until the Army finally came at 3 {a.m.}. 'Blood for blood,' they were shouting," he said. He and his family managed to escape unhurt.

Now he and hundreds of other Hisar Sikhs were gathered at a small gurdwara, or temple, on the outskirts of the city. The main gurdwara in the center of the city sits in smoldering ruins, sacked by mobs who also burned nearby shops and a gas station.

Saroop Singh and four others had just returned from a meeting called by local officials who told them that all was safe and that they could return home. But no one was leaving the temple.

"I don't even have a spoon, so how can I go back to the house," Saroop Singh said.

"Where do we go? What do we do?" he asked plaintively. "In Hisar we are hunted like goats for the slaughter. If we go to Punjab, Sikhs get butchered and killed there, too. Where is the country we have been slaving for?"

Others nursing their wounds in the steamy temple courtyard were equally perplexed. Some said they had not yet made up their minds about returning home, that they wanted to see if the local administration would make guarantees of security. Haryana state officials announced late Saturday night that they had arrested 150 people, including the brother of a member of Gandhi's Cabinet and two former Congress (I) Party state legislators, in connection with the mob violence in Hisar, Fatehabad and Sirsa.

Others seem to have made up their minds, saying their only hope was to join other Sikhs in Punjab, words seemingly welcomed by young militants in the crowd.

"If they can't save us here, they should at least let us go to Punjab. We can save ourselves there," said one attorney.

On each side of this bitter divide are bitter words for those in authority, whether they are local officials, prominent state politicians or the Gandhi government in Delhi. For those worried about governing this vast, problem-ridden land, the indictments are harsh, and the fragile bonds between people and government have become looser.

"We had word that the mobs were forming, so I called the local authorities," said one Sikh leader who did not want to be named out of fear of further reprisals. "Six times I called, and six times I was told help was coming, but I have yet to see anything."

At the Mehta home there was similar anger.

In an outburst directed at state officials who had just defeated Gandhi's Congress (I) Party, a grieving relative said:

"We backed these politicians, but what have we got from them? Nothing. We have lost our people. They have 20 or 30 people for security, but ordinary people have nothing. There is no security for common people. Next time we should not vote. These politicians do nothing."

For all the bitterness and fear, however, there are those who stood up for their neighbors, drawing on years of close ties for the strength to stand up to a mob. It is another side to the oft-told tale of bitterness and hostility.

"It is only because of my neighbors that I am here now," said a Sikh inside the crowded gurdwara.

"When the mobs came, they came out and protected us, forcing them to go away. They told us, 'If you are killed, we are killed.' "

An elderly Sikh farmer, his face and arms bearing the marks of a severe beating, said a shouting mob ripped his money from his shirt pocket and gold bracelets from his wrists and began beating him with clubs when a local politician stepped out of his house, pulled a revolver and forced them to leave.

For many of the 150,000 Hindus of Hisar, however, Wednesday was only a warning.

"People are still angry. It is there," said a merchant "If there is another incident, it will happen again."

A woman whose son was wounded when a Sikh opened fire on people gathered outside his house was more graphic.

Standing only yards from where the mob had dragged the Sikh and burned him in the roadway, she recalled the Hindu-Moslem carnage of the 1948 partition in which thousands died. She said in the earthy language of a north Indian peasant:

"We will teach them a lesson like the Moslems never learned."