NEW DELHI -- It was 11:30 on a recent lazy Sunday morning in Greater Kailash, a colony of big concrete homes and some apartment buildings that is about the nearest thing in India to Beverly Hills. There are differences though, as pig families and cows wander among the estates and peddlers sit outside selling tobacco that makes your teeth turn red.

Antique dealer Gulshan Chadha stepped across the road from his apartment building to a small park where several dozen locals, most of them wealthy businessmen from India's privileged upper castes, were gathering for a quiet protest meeting against a proposed affirmative-action plan that would set aside half of all government jobs for lower-caste applicants.

Chadha listened to block president Ahal Singh talk about the shocking public suicide attempts by upper-caste students in recent weeks. As many as 15 have set themselves on fire to protest the job quota plan. Singh told his audience, as he later recalled, that "their acts of self-immolation showed they had an extraordinary inner strength. But the need is to channel this strength for productive purposes."

Suddenly there were screams.

"It's Chadha's daughter!" someone yelled. Smoke and fire poured from the balcony of Chadha's building. They all ran back, climbed the stairs, doused 19-year-old Monica Chadha with water and smothered her with curtains. But she already had burns over nine-tenths of her body.

In the car on the way to the hospital, before Monica Chadha lapsed into a coma, she reportedly chanted against India's prime minister, author of the controversial affirmative action plan. "Death to V.P. Singh," she said. "Death to V.P. Singh."

She is not expected to live. Gulshan Chadha spends his days now by his daughter's bed. Occasionally he tries to answer reporters' questions about what Monica's suicide attempt means, but he cannot. He breaks down in tears. Back in Greater Kailash, all public protest meetings have been canceled. The activists are afraid for their own children.

Caste hatreds stirred by Singh's affirmative-action proposal have generated riots and violence across India's north in recent weeks. But the most shocking aspect of the protests has been the public self-immolations by Indian students. At least two or three new attempts are reported daily, some by protesters as young as 12 or 13.

"One shouldn't underestimate the public despair that is reflected here," said Sudhir Kakar, India's leading psychoanalyst and author of a much-discussed examination of modern Indian culture. "It is the ultimate argument of, 'Why don't you listen to me?' And the addressee does seem to be V.P. Singh."

Kakar sees several factors in the public and private despair of upper-caste Indian youth: intense competitive pressures at home and at school, a breakdown of traditional family structures in India's cities and a growing sense that the old system of family support from cradle to grave is breaking down among northern upper castes.

Initially the suicides had a powerful political impact, galvanizing national support for the anti-quotas movement. But as the burnings continue, swallowing the lives of children who are not seen as politically aware, the suicides' meaning has grown ambiguous, triggering a profound unease across India.

Witnesses to several self-immolations have changed their testimony recently, suggesting that chanting mobs may have egged on otherwise reluctant protesters. One young girl who was burnt in public and initially termed a suicide protester reportedly issued a statement from her hospital bed alleging that she was the victim of attempted murder carried out by several boys in her junior high school.

In Greater Kailash and its environs today, dozens of conflicting, confused opinions can be heard about why Monica Chadha burned herself.

Some see her suicide attempt, and those of the other students, as primarily political, dramatic protests born from desperation about what they may have seen as a bleak economic future. "We all feel respect, we feel they're doing the right thing," said tea stall proprietor M.P. Jaiswal of Chadha and the other students. Socially privileged but struggling economically, Jaiswal is typical of those who support the students.

Others see the self-immolations as psychological acts. They argue that Monica Chadha's self-immolation was a public call for help born from private depression or emotional problems and that it was unrelated to politics or the job quotas issue.

Indians looking for someone to blame have turned their attention to the student protesters who have watched while fellow students doused themselves with kerosene and struck their fateful matches.