PATIALA, INDIA -- It happened on the main highway to New Delhi, two hours after sunset. H. S. Sohal, a Sikh orthopedic surgeon who says he pays little attention to Punjab's tangled separatist politics, was driving home after visiting relatives. The doctor's 17-year-old son sat beside him.

Out of blackness came a bang. "I thought my tire was out," Sohal recalled. "But just after a moment I felt the blood of my son on my neck. Then I knew we had been shot."

An allegedly drunken policeman stationed by the road had fired at suspected Sikh terrorists and missed. The bullet smashed the rear window of the Sohal family van, virtually severed the head of Sohal's son, then passed through the front windshield. The boy died in an instant.

Six weeks later, Sohal is performing surgery again and struggling with his grief. He is angry at the Punjab police but reluctant to see his tragedy as political. "We the innocent are the sufferers," he said. "What is happening in Punjab and why it is happening is unknown to the public. . . . We are helpless."

In its randomness and violence, the death of Sohal's son seems to reflect a drift into confusion, brutality and despair in India's Sikh-majority state of Punjab. Armed separatist guerrillas and government security forces now skirmish daily in the streets while political leaders on all sides squabble over Punjab's future.

Only 11 months ago, Sikhs and Hindus alike brimmed with hope that years of violence and confrontation between Sikh activists and the government of this overwhelmingly Hindu nation would at last yield to compromise, reconciliation and stability in this prosperous farming and industrial region.

Former prime minister V. P. Singh traveled twice earlier this year to Amritsar, a holy city to Sikhs, where tumultuous crowds cheered his promise to heal religious wounds between Sikhs and Hindus.

At the same time, a new Sikh politician, Simranjit Singh Mann, emerged from prison to become the first leader in years capable of uniting Punjab's militant and moderate Sikh factions. Mann's unusual political strength among Sikhs and his promise to work within the framework of India's constitution raised hopes that a peaceful compromise could be reached with New Delhi.

But far from being a time of healing, 1990 has developed as the most violent year in Punjab in nearly a decade. The state government says there have been 3,254 deaths in Punjab since January, including more than 1,000 "terrorists" and about 1,500 civilians. Sikh activists say the number of civilian deaths is higher because many victims labeled as terrorists by the government are actually ordinary citizens felled by crossfire or police excesses.

The religious wounds Singh and Mann said they would try to heal this year were opened in 1984 when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered India's army to assault the Sikhs' holiest shrine to oust armed militants who had taken refuge inside. The attack led to Gandhi's assassination by some of her Sikh bodyguards, which in turn triggered riots by Hindus in which more than 1,000 Sikhs were killed. The riots spurred armed conflict in Punjab between separatist guerrillas and the government.

Singh's government was unable to follow through on its early promises and fell from power earlier this month, to be replaced by another minority administration led by socialist Chandra Shekhar. And Mann, while still a formidable Sikh leader, has been unwilling or unable to bargain seriously with the New Delhi government. Many Hindus and some Sikhs now see Mann as a captive of uncompromising Sikh militants tainted by criminal elements.

Guerrillas and ordinary Sikhs blame this year's high death toll on excesses by Indian paramilitary troops operating with little political control or guidance. Indian officials blame the violence on heavily armed Sikh separatists and terrorists who obtain weapons from Pakistan.

Apart from Singh's symbolic visits to Amritsar, there have been no fresh political initiatives in the state.

"The government can't seem to make up its mind as to what to do in Punjab -- they have no policy," said Kanwaljit Singh, a moderate Sikh politician. "This sort of drift suits the militant or terrorist elements. That's why you find that things are going from bad to worse."

Successive Indian governments have postponed state elections for three years, preferring to rule Punjab directly. New Delhi politicians say that a vote, seen as likely to bring Mann to power in the state capital of Chandigarh, would inevitably be marred by violence and intimidation from armed separatists. The politicians also worry that if Mann won, he might use his office to seek independence for Punjab, a move that could plunge the state deeper into chaos.

India's new prime minister is said by senior Punjab government officials to favor new elections as a way to end the deadlock and alienation in the state. But police and intelligence officials have told Shekhar in recent days that elections would only encourage separatist militants to step up their campaign against India, these officials said.

Sikh activists such as Mann describe the failure to hold elections as a ruse that allows Indian security forces to press a violent campaign against suspected separatists. Mann has said that if he became chief minister, he would order all paramilitary forces out of Punjab. The forces have been implicated by human rights organizations in India and abroad in a growing number of disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture cases.

While polls and interviews suggest that armed Sikh guerrillas do not enjoy broad support even among their own religious group, the recent political vacuum in the state appears to have helped the militants renew their campaign at a grass-roots level.

Punjabi language newspapers carry dozens of pictorial advertisements daily for "martyr ceremonies" at which Sikhs killed by security forces are buried in village rallies where separatists deliver impassioned speeches and distribute pamphlets about their cause. Punjab's government, managed by a shifting coterie of career bureaucrats, has no comparable contact with the citizenry.

Many Punjabis say they are fed up with the Indian government, which is widely seen as indifferent to the concerns of Sikhs.

"For the ordinary man, life is increasingly unbearable," said Dinesh Kumar, a Punjabi journalist of mixed Hindu and Sikh heritage. "Political leaders use the slightest pretext to get mileage out of the situation. Everyone is out to play some card or the other. It all stinks."