For once, the siege ended quietly. A nine-day standoff at the Golden Temple at Amritsar, 450 km northwest of the Indian capital of New Delhi, began on May 9 when radical Sikh nationalists opened fire from inside the temple grounds at a group of policemen. In the ensuing gunfight, two civilians and three militants died, and five policemen were wounded. Over the next week and a half, another 30 Sikhs died in sporadic exchanges of machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire with 2,800 Indian troops who had surrounded the 72-acre religious complex in Punjab state. But late last Wednesday, in a surrender that seemed to mock the militants’ own rhetoric, one woman and 45 men emerged peacefully from the temple’s gilded inner sanctum, the Harmandir Sahib, an ornate marble building set in an artificial lake. Said one militant: “We ran out of food, water and ammunition.”
The peaceful end to the confrontation reflected a change in tactics from a bloody assault conducted on the holy site by Indian troops in 1984. But it did not point to any break in the cycle of political violence that has gripped northern India. For most of this decade, Sikh extremists driven by fiery nationalism and religious fundamentalism have used terrorist killings to back their demand for the creation of an independent country— which they call Khalistan —in Punjab. And even as the standoff in the Golden Temple fizzled out last week, other extremists launched the year’s worst rampage. In a brutal shooting spree, Sikh gunmen murdered more than 135 people across Punjab, bringing the death toll from political violence in northwest India to more than 1,100 in 1988.
Two Sikh extremists died during the surrender when they darted away from the path dictated by security officers. Three more died after apparently swallowing poison. Despite the deaths, the siege —called Operation Black Thunder—was a dramatic change from the bloodbath four years earlier. An estimated 500 Indian soldiers and 1,000 extremists died when troops stormed the Golden Temple in June, 1984. That attack, regarded by many Sikhs as a desecration of their holiest site, sparked riots in which 3,000 more people died. Four months later Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the siege, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Those events clearly influenced Gandhi’s son and successor as prime min-
ister, Rajiv Gandhi, as he sought a response to the latest flare-up of Sikh fanaticism. As in 1984, Sikh defiance increased steadily in the months leading up to the gunfire on May 9. Still, when Gandhi authorized the siege early this month, he ordered his troops not to fire directly on the Harmandir Sahib. And after last week’s surrender
he declared, “The biggest achievement is that there has been minimal bloodshed, and the sanctity of the Golden Temple has not been violated.”
But the larger task of defusing extremism among India’s 15 million Sikhs—two per cent of its 800-million population—has so far eluded Gandhi. He has been criticized for policy reversals on Sikh nationalism: after authorizing a sweeping crackdown last year, Gandhi last month ordered several militant Sikh leaders released from prison. And even among moderate Sikhs, many blame Gandhi for provoking the standoff at the temple. Said Balbir Singh, a Sikh taxi driver in New
Delhi: “These dirty politicians of Rajiv Gandhi’s government are responsible. It is a ploy to whip up anti-Sikh hysteria and win Hindu votes.”
Meanwhile, the measure of Sikh extremists’ response was clear even before the siege ended. In scattered killings on May 16, terror squads murdered 44 people, mostly Hindus, in Punjab. Two days later gunmen shouting pro-Khalistan slogans killed more than 30 laborers at a canal construction site 50 km from the state capital of Chandigarh. And the violence con-
tinued late last week with Sikh attacks across Punjab.
The departure of the gunmen from the Golden Temple could well be only temporary. Extremists successfully returned to the Amritsar complex after the 1984 attack and again following a police sweep in 1986. And last week the defeated Sikh garrison managed to inject a note of defiance even into its surrender signal. Instead of the traditional white flag, the besieged extremists telegraphed their willingness to give up with pieces of cloth died saffron—the color of Sikh martyrdom.
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