New Delhi — He is not unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, a comparison that is often made. There is the same charisma. Both are turbaned, and have long, flowing beards. Both rely on a mass following, drawn mostly from youth. And both share a fiery fundamentalism in religion, and implacable political views.
Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is only 36. But, without his agreement, there can be no accord on ending the escalating violence, with all of its communal portends, which has brought ''president's rule'' to the sensitive breadbasket of India, the northern state of Punjab.
He has so solidified his power, as the youngest and most militant leader of India's 15 million Sikhs, that Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, the white-bearded leader of the Sikh's only political party, the Akali Dal, now comes to his sanctuary in the Golden Temple when it is necessary to talk.
Bhindranwale has charged that the central government showed no concern at the alleged killing of 200 Sikhs last spring. But, when fifteen Hindus were killed recently in the Punjab, the central government imposed president's rule.
The prime minister refuted the charges in a press conference over the weekend. She responded bitterly, ''But who had prepared the hit list?''
An open advocate of violence, if violence is deemed necessary to further the Sikh cause, the enigmatic Bhindranwale came from nowhere two years ago to make an indelible imprint upon that proud people immortalized by Kipling: the dashing Sikh warrior class.
He is a ''Sant,'' or holy man, a village preacher obsessed with taking Sikhs and Sikhism back to their fundamentalist roots. Large numbers of young men, who had abandoned the turban and ''kirpan'' dagger, cut their hair, and taken to drink and smoke, have now returned to the basic social precepts of their religion. They look at Bhindranwale as a 20th-century saint-guru.
''When all other remedies are past,'' he told a recent interviewer, ''it is justifiable to unsheathe the sword.''
Scores of young men, sitting at his feet, chorused ''yes'' in approval. All were heavily armed.
For the past year, Bhindranwale has found sanctuary in Amritsar's Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. From there he is believed to have directed much of the terrorism by the growingly militant Sikhs. Even after the introduction of president's rule, it has not abated. This weekend alone at least eight more people died.
When Bhindranwale was arrested two years ago on charges of murdering a religious rival, his supporters stormed the police station and touched off riots across the Punjab. In that mayhem, 17 people died.
Today, the often-temperamental leader is surrounded by scores of Nihang Singh warriors, an elitist Praetorian Guard charged with protecting the Golden Temple. They all wear blue tunics and turbans. All bear sophisticated weapons and arms.
Outside the temple, 3,000 men of India's paramilitary border security force patrol Amritsar's teeming bazaar. Inside, Bhindranwale's followers boast that they are ready for an attack.
With a command post on the rooftop of a building near the sacred temple itself, Bhindranwale holds an audience at sunset each day. His gaunt, six-foot frame towers over the assemblage. His visitors, one by one, file past him silently, kissing his feet. He has the look of Rasputin in his gleaming, deepset eyes. He wears the simplest white, homespun garments, and carries a long spear and revolver. He wears 45 bullets in a bandoleer.
''Mrs. Gandhi will never succeed in suppressing the Sikhs,'' he intones with growing emotion. ''All of this, and its future,'' he says, stretching his arms toward the Golden Temple, and the land beyond, the great agricultural heartland of northern India, ''it will find a solution not from Mrs. Gandhi, but from the unbreakable spirit of the Sikh people and their holy book.''
His followers murmur approval, clutching their weapons and swords.
Bhindranwale himself is not a supporter, or at least not yet, of the visionary Sikh independent nation known as Khalistan. But there are many Khalistan supporters among his burgeoning ranks. And, for concerned New Delhi officials, his quest for power and his drive for opportunity are the primary forces which move this unknown man, from an unknown Punjabi hamlet, who has become the Punjab's most formidable force.
Born Jarnail Singh, son of an impoverished Jat peasant in the village of Rodey in 1947 (he does not know his exact date of birth), he adopted the name Bhindranwale, as have other followers of a religious leader from the village of Bhinder in the central Punjab.
Gifted with an excellent memory, Bhindranwale was adept at reciting the scriptures from the age of five, though, even now, he speaks no language other than Punjabi, and reads only the Gurmukhi script.
As his father's seventh and youngest son, he attended school only through the primary level, then began to work the fields. In 1977, he succeeded his mentor as head of the religous order in the village of Bhinder, thus acquiring the title of ''holy man.''
A strict vegetarian, he shuns all intoxicants, even tea, begins his day at three o'clock in the morning, and has housed his wife and two sons in his native village, removed from all controversial publicity.
Implicated in the April 1980 murder of the Nirankari guru, Gurbachan Singh, a charge which he denied, and which has never been proved, Bhindranwale nonetheless applauded the deed.
''Gurbachan Singh's killers have saved the humbled pride of the Sikhs and given an upward twist to their downfallen mustaches,'' he told the Sikh authority Khushwant Singh.
Moderate Sikh leaders see the new fundamentalism of Bhindranwale as a menacing, and burgeoning, threat.
Yet, he is an intoxicant to his followers - not unlike the ayatollah with whom he's so often compared.