Among all the religious and regional strains that afflict modern India, the violence generated by secessionist activity in the rich northern farming state of the Punjab has proven the most destructive. Since 1982 an estimated 4,500 people have died as a result of the conflict. The dead included 600 Sikhs who were killed during a government raid on their holy Golden Temple in Amritsar in June, 1984, and thenprime minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in revenge by two of her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi last October. Last week Gandhi’s son and successor took a major step toward ending the discord when he signed a historic pact with moderate Sikh leaders. Said Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: “This will bring an end to a very difficult period. It will be the beginning of a new phase of working together to build the country, to build unity and integrity.”
Most Sikh moderates agreed that Gandhi, 40, had made important concessions. Under the 11-point accord, Gandhi pledged to make the city of Chandigarh, which now is the administrative centre for both the Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana, the capital of the Sikh homeland only. He also pledged to expand an inquiry into widespread attacks on Sikhs launched by Hindus following his mother’s assassination, to provide compensation for families of those killed in Punjab disturbances and to withdraw emergency measures allowing search and arrest without warrant in the state. Leaders of the moderate Akali Dal political party, meeting in Ananadpur Sahib, ratified the plan and called off a three-year program of protest against the government. Declared party chief Harchand Singh Longowal: “The agitation has ended with this meeting.”
But the accord was swiftly denounced by Sikh radical groups, including the powerful All India Sikh Students’ Federation. The militants termed it a “complete sellout.” Meanwhile, Sikh demands for greater state political autonomy will be referred to a judicial panel. In an attempt to speed the return to normality, the government hinted that it would hold state and national elections in Punjab this fall. Officials say they hope that the vote will bring Sikh moderates into power and isolate the radicals—paving the way for a return to peace and stability in the longsuffering state.
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