NEW DELHI -- Ordered by squabbling politicians to solve a host of problems from organized crime to secessionism to religious violence, India's security forces are exercising growing power on the subcontinent and accumulating a record of human rights abuses.

Elected politicians have asked India's security forces to use weapons to tackle such complex political problems as secessionist movements in Kashmir and Punjab, agitation by aboriginal tribes in the northeast, civil warfare between rival castes in the north and conflict between Hindus and Moslems across the country.

As a result, the traditional identity of the security forces as emergency guarantors of law and order has come under strain, provoking anger toward politicians among some senior officers and raising questions about what role the forces should play in India's fractured polity.

"We're almost sitting on a volcano today," said a senior security force officer, who asked not to be identified. "Every educated Indian is very worried. The problems just keep overtaking us."

But, he said, the security forces "are no solution to these problems. . . . Maybe we're looking for shortcuts. . . . We made a lot of mistakes under the pressure of politics."

India's security forces fall into three categories: state police, federal paramilitary troops and the army. Under normal circumstances, the police handle routine law and order, with the federal paramilitary troops available for emergency backup and the army devoted solely to external defense.

But in recent years, the lines of identity and responsibility have become blurred. State police forces have proven ineffective in quelling secessionist and religious movements, often because local policemen identify with the grievances of agitators. This has forced New Delhi to ask federal paramilitary troops -- and occasionally the army -- to solve local law-and-order problems. To meet such requests, the two main paramilitary forces, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force, have expanded.

A number of officers interviewed expressed concern about a cycle of political failure and violence increasingly evident in India.

According to these officers, shortsighted and ineffective politicians allow ethnic, caste and religious problems to fester, then call out the security forces to restore order among an alienated population -- such as the millions of northern Hindus who nurse religious and caste grievances.

Then, these officers said, the security troops, which are largely unchecked by civilian or judicial authority, respond to their challenge by resorting to excessive force.

"The politicians put us in this mess," said a senior police official in Punjab, where more than 3,000 people have died this year in clashes between secessionists and security forces. "The police are asked to perform as the army and as politicians. How is that possible?"

The use of federal forces to tackle local conflicts sometimes adds new problems to existing ones.

In Kashmir, for example, the status of the security forces as religious and ethnic outsiders appears to have contributed to a rash of documented human rights abuses such as rape, arson and extrajudicial executions.

Hindu paramilitary soldiers assigned to Kashmir find themselves in the midst of an angry and heavily armed Moslem population. Harassed and largely unhindered by discipline in their ranks, the troops lash back, protected by laws granting broadened powers to shoot to kill, to destroy suspected militant hideouts and to detain and arrest suspects.

However, India's deteriorating human rights record, as documented by the United Nations and independent groups such as Amnesty International and Asia Watch, extends far beyond the problems in Kashmir.

The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, based in New Delhi, reported that during 1989 the largest number of deaths in police custody occurred not in ethnically troubled areas such as Kashmir, Punjab or the northeast, but in the capital itself, where more than two dozen cases of death in detention were reported.

Hundreds of cases of torture, murder by security forces and death in police custody are now reported annually across India, particularly in regions such as the northeast and the rural north where large populations of underprivileged aboriginal tribes and lower castes face harassment from landowners and police.

In remote Manipur in the northeast, where foreign journalists can travel only with government permission, Amnesty International has published court testimony from tribal villagers, women and children who said they faced execution, rape, electric shocks and other forms of torture from members of the Assam Rifles, a federal paramilitary unit. Amnesty concluded that India's central government "condoned the abuses."

Indian government officials say they are taking steps to hold paramilitary soldiers accountable for excesses, although the most severe punishment handed out so far, even in rape and murder cases, has been suspension from duty.

"Suspension is a stiff punishment in an armed unit," said J. N. Saksena, the senior officer in charge of police and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. "It is a very, very serious thing. His {a soldier's} pay is withheld and his facilities {housing and meals} are withheld."

Human rights activists and Western diplomats say that in an effort to deflect international attention from its own problems, India has backed other governments with dubious human rights records. At the United Nations, New Delhi has supported Iraq's opposition to a resolution condemning the use of poison gas against Kurdish rebels and backed China after the 1989 massacre of anti-government demonstrators in Beijing, diplomats and human rights activists said.

Ravi Nair, a New Delhi-based activist who says he has been jailed 27 times by the Indian government, said India's security forces "have ensconced themselves in the belief that there will be no accountability. In a sense, there's an undeclared state of emergency."

Police and paramilitary officers argue that a crusade for accountability in their forces will only demoralize soldiers who already have been given a nearly impossible task of enforcing law and order while cleaning up political problems created by New Delhi.

Security force officers and human rights activists agree that there has been a breakdown in the historical relationship between India's civilian, democratic institutions and the police and paramilitary forces.

One example frequently cited by paramilitary officials is crowd control, which in India often involves rapid use of live ammunition.

Officers say they do not deserve all the blame for incidents such as the one last month in the northern town of Ayodhya, where security forces killed at least nine unarmed Hindu militants who attacked a disputed mosque. The shootings provoked religious riots throughout India that claimed dozens of lives.

By law, paramilitary officials point out, every security force officer assigned to a potential riot situation carries a card that must be signed by a civilian or political magistrate before shots can be fired. Security force officers say that when religious or caste protests get out of hand, the civilian magistrates often flee or refuse to sign the authorizations, leaving the forces to make their own decisions.

Paramilitary officers say such abdication of responsibility by the civilian powers leaves them in a no-win situation. If they do not fire and control the crowd, politicians accuse them of cowardice or ineffectiveness. If they do open fire, the same politicians accuse them of brutality and even murder.

"It's a vicious circle and I don't think any government in the last few years has been able to get out of it," said P. K. Parekh, a lawyer and director of the International Institute of Human Rights in New Delhi. "They {politicians} give the job of governance to the security forces. . . . The danger is very much there because once the forces taste power, they may not be able to give it up."