The battle for Punjab

MARCUS GEE May 23 1988

The battle for Punjab

MARCUS GEE May 23 1988

The battle for Punjab


Since radical Indian Sikhs began a violent campaign for independence in 1982, the Golden Temple in the northern city of Amritsar has served both as a haven for the militants and a symbol of their defiance. Twice the Indian government has tried to force them out of the temple. In 1984’s Operation Blue Star, 1,200 people were killed when Indian army troops stormed Sikhdom’s holiest shrine—setting off Sikh protests around the world. In 1986 soldiers invaded the temple again and expelled the militants who were occupying it. But after each attack, new fighters have slipped back into the labyrinthine complex, with its dozens of entrances. And last week, as gun battles broke out between militants and soldiers, the scene appeared to be building toward yet another bloody climax.

The confrontation at the Golden Temple —including a limited assault by soldiers on some outer buildings— coincided with a new reign of terror by the militants, who are fighting to create an independent Sikh homeland in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Since the beginning of the year they have killed more than 900 people—three times the number for the corresponding period in 1987. More than 100 died in the first 10 days of May alone. Unlike previous years, when most victims were Hindus, more than half of the fatalities in 1988 have been Sikhs. “The terrorists do not necessarily discriminate between Hindus and Sikhs,” said Dalbir Singh, a young Sikh lawyer in the state capital of Chandigarh. “Increasingly, it is becoming a massacre of innocents whatever their religion.” The carnage has reached such proportions that many people—both Sikhs and Hindus —have fled to refugee camps, especially from the hardhit districts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur near the Pakistani border. Thousands of Hindu families in the border area have received letters from Sikh militant groups declaring that “there is no place for Hindus in Khalistan” —the name of the state they seek to establish —and ordering them to leave. Said Roshan Lal, a shopkeeper who fled his village for the Radha Soami refugee camp in the

Amritsar district: “To disregard their threats would be suicide.” Moderate Sikhs are equally afraid. Twenty-six-year-old Surjit Singh recently moved to a refugee camp in the Amritsar district after terrorists murdered most of the members of his family. Last New Year’s Day six men burst into the family farmhouse in the town of Cheema Bath near the Pakistani border and opened fire with Chinesemade AK-47 assault rifles, 9-mm Sten

submachine-guns and .32-calibre revolvers. In a few seconds all nine people in the house were dead, including Singh’s father, mother, wife, two daughters—aged 2 and 4—three sisters, a cousin and an 18-month-old nephew who was found lying on the floor, a feeding bottle still between his lips. Singh and his sister Kuldip survived because they were out of the house at the time. The killers, who apparently suspected the family of being

police informers, escaped without a trace. “We live in fear that the terrorists will get us one day,” said Singh.

After taking part in such attacks, many terrorists have taken refuge in the Golden Temple, again turning the shrine into a virtual fortress. Brickand-mortar bunkers have been built to protect the more than 100 armed militants who occupy the grounds, and Khalistani flags of yellow and black flutter from the walls. “We are ready for another Operation Blue Star,” said one young guerrilla.

Last week’s showdown began when militants opened fire on police commanders who were inspecting a makeshift bunker from a post overlooking the temple. In the ensuing gunfight, two civilians and three militants were killed. After ordering 700 worshippers to leave the temple, 2,500 paramilitary

police took up positions on the perimeter, and elite Indian commandos stationed on high buildings surrounding the shrine kept the militants pinned down with accurate fire from telescope-sighted rifles. In sporadic exchanges of gunfire throughout the week, at least 20 Sikhs were killed. Then, on Friday, the security forces— reinforced by 300 fresh commandos— smashed through fortifications to seize two buildings in the temple complex, including a kitchen, which had been serving food to the militants.

But the militants told reporters who visited them that they would rather die than surrender, and some said that, if necessary, they would commit suicide by swallowing cyanide tablets.

Both Hindus and Sikhs place the blame for the rising violence on the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, although for different rea-

sons. “The government has failed to protect our lives and property,” said Arjinder Kumar, a Hindu ricksha driver in Amritsar. “We have lost faith in official promises that the Punjab problem will be solved.”

Sikhs, who comprise about 60 per cent of Punjab’s population of 18 million, seem to be especially distrustful of Gandhi. His mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, earned the enmity of Sikhs around the world when she ordered the attack on the Golden Temple in 1984. Five months later Sikh bodyguards assassinated Gandhi, provoking anti-Sikh pogroms that claimed 3,000 lives. Many Sikhs claim that her son has failed to bring the perpetrators of the pogroms to justice. “The many treacheries of the government have forced the youth to take to violence,” said Sher Singh, a student at Amrit-

sar’s Guru Nanak Dev University. “It is the politicians who have made the fight for Khalistan inevitable.”

Both Sikhs and Hindus have criticized Gandhi for his erratic handling of the Sikh question. After supporting a state government composed of moderate Sikhs in 1985 he imposed central government rule on the Punjab and rounded up hundreds of militants in a crackdown last year. Now, Gandhi has changed policy again. In evident hopes of luring the militants to the negotiating table, he ordered the release last month of imprisoned agitator Jasbir Singh Rode and installed him in the Golden Temple as head priest of the Sikh faith. But since his release Rode has bitterly criticized the government. And other militant leaders say that they will support him only if he declares unequivocally in favor of an independent Khalistan nation—a de-

mand that the government in New Delhi rejects outright. Rode—who was rearrested last week after he tried to lead a march on the Golden Templehas so far refused to cpmmit himself.

Other militant leaders express an almost fanatical determination to achieve an independent Khalistan. Jagir Singh, a notorious terrorist wanted by the government, which has offered a $4,500 reward for his capture, has a map in the Golden Temple which depicts a Khalistani empire including almost all of India, except for the Kashmir valley in the far north and the remote border states in the northeast. “We claim 96 per cent of the country because Sikhs contributed 96 per cent of the effort and sacrifice to make India free,” said Singh, referring to the role played by Sikhs in India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

Many Sikhs disapprove of the militants’ methods. “The massacre of innocents, whether they be Sikh or Hindu, is against the tenets of the Sikh faith,” said Chandigarh businessman Bhajan Singh, 55. But few Sikh leaders are willing to criticize the extremists publicly. Terrorists have killed scores of moderates who dared to speak out, and those who survived have been pushed aside as the radicals have seized control of Sikh politics.

Authorities say that the militants’ aggressive new posture and the rising death toll are the result of clandestine support from India’s traditional adversary, Pakistan. To prevent the infiltration of arms and guerrillas across the Punjab’s 553-km border with Pakistan, the state administration has begun building a 160-km fence. Pakistani officials have vigorously denied that they are supporting the Sikh militants.

In case they fail to open talks with the militants, the government has pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament that would allow it to impose a state of emergency in Punjab. But officials acknowledge that further repression is unlikely to destroy the separatist movement. “Let us make no mistake about an easy solution to extremism in Punjab,” said a senior police official last week. “Like the Irish and Basque movements, the Sikh militants may be around for generations to come.”

MARCUS GEE with A JOY BOSE in Amritsar