DURBAN, South Africa (AP) _ Many of South Africa's 1.2 million Indians appear ready to vote for the same party that made them second-class citizens.

The National Party, which drafted apartheid laws taking away their homes, forcing them into townships and keeping them out of desirable jobs, nonetheless seems a safer alternative to many of South Africa's ethnic Indians than the black-led African National Congress.

As they have been since coming to South Africa to work on sugar-cane plantations in the 1860s, the Indians are caught in the middle of a racially divided society. They see a threat to what little privilege they have coming from below even as they are oppressed from above.

Campaigning for the country's first all-race election April 26-28, the National Party has stoked fears that the expected winner, the ANC, will focus on black needs and that Indians and mixed-race ''coloreds'' will be left out again.

''I would feel more secure if the NP won,'' said Thiru Chetty, 45. ''I would just like to stay the way we are.''

The Indian vote could help the NP win a few more seats in Parliament, strengthening its hand in national affairs. But their voting power really lies in Durban - which has the largest population of people of Indian descent, known locally as Asians - where 655,000 Indian voters could determine the balance of power and even threaten an ANC provincial majority.

Never as firmly oppressed as blacks, Indians, about 3 percent of the national population, have managed a degree of prosperity.

''We are the ham in the sandwich,'' said Ahmed-Sadek Vahed, a clothing manufacturer and exporter who operates one of South Africa's biggest family businesses. Despite his wealth, he was confined to living in an Indian neighborhood when his children were growing up. Now he can gaze down at Durban from a penthouse in a formerly whites-only neighborhood.

Apartheid has fed social stratification and Indians who might gaze longingly at posh white neighborhoods also look suspiciously at poor black settlements over the hill from the working-class Indian township of Phoenix.

''I wonder how long it will take for the Africans to realize their leaders' promises are not being met,'' said Mrs. Chetty, who lives in Phoenix. ''Will they take over my house then?''

Last year, hundreds of new homes earmarked for Indians were taken over by blacks pushing out of a desperately poor and overcrowded Durban-area township. Images of 1949 race riots between blacks and Indians in Durban are still vivid, as are memories of businesses and homes lost by Indians in East Africa when black governments took over from colonial powers.

''The Indian community is, by and large, going to vote conservatively,'' said Douglas Irvine, a political science professor at the University of Natal.

''They are aware of the history of Indians in East Africa and the majority will vote for the National Party as the one party which claims it can stop the ANC'' from doing the same here, said Irvine.

The ANC might seem a more natural party for Indians. It was a young Mohandas Gandhi, India's independence leader, who led a campaign against South African laws requiring all non-Europeans to carry pass books limiting their movement. The example of Gandhi's Congress movement inspired blacks to found the ANC in 1912.

Indians and blacks worked side by side to tear down apartheid, and today the percentage of Indians in the ANC leadership is four times as large as their proportion of the population.

But opinion polls indicate the National Party is winning most Indian support. One in the Post Natal newspaper showed 46 percent of the 279 urban Indians polled preferred the National Party's F.W. de Klerk to 14 percent for ANC leader Nelson Mandela, with 33 percent undecided and the rest supporting other parties.