New Delhi — Violence is no stranger to India's strategic border state of Punjab. But a continuing wave of murders, bomb blasts, robberies, and desecration of religious shrines, has transcended anything which has happened in the volatile area in the last decade.
After two weeks of vengeance killings - which have left some 200 injured and at least 65 dead, provoking a previously unknown and vicious Hindu backlash - Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has come under increasing pressure to act.
Sikhs throughout the Punjab are symbolically burning the Indian Constitution, demanding the deletion of a clumsily worded phrase which implies that Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists are part of the Hindu faith.
Since declaring federal control in the Punjab more than four months ago - merely a ''psychological fillip,'' says one opposition source - the prime minister has seemingly dithered as Rome continues to burn.
She has now assumed personal charge of the government's Punjab policy and, according to one well-informed source, is considering perhaps the most potentially explosive option of all: storming the most sacred of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in the Amritsar - to flush out some 1,000 Sikh militants who have taken refuge inside.
According to the government, these militants have directed the state's escalating violence, untouchable by authorities, within the temple's sacred ground.
But for Mrs. Gandhi, a commando raid on one of this country's most sacred religious shrines could not only provoke an outright Sikh guerrilla war, but could also have repercussions within the Army - 25 percent of which is Sikh.
It is considered unlikely that the special commandoes of the Indian border police would be able to handle such an operation.
In a five-hour gun battle with extremists camped inside the temple complex last week, the commandoes were unable to hold their own. And according to Western military attaches, there is an overriding reluctance on the part of India's career military men to become involved in civilian law-and-order problems.
Aside from its Sikh complement, large numbers of the standing Army come from the Punjab. They are even less inclined to become Mrs. Gandhi's arbitor in their native cities, towns, and villages than they were in Assam last February when ethnic-communal violence cost 3,000 lives.
Nonetheless, they are now on standby alert to move into the Punjab if the violence becomes worse.
To critics of the prime minister's Punjab policy - and their numbers continue to grow - the woman who has ruled independent India longer than anyone else has allowed the violence to continue, manipulating it for political ends. It is a crucial election year for Mrs. Gandhi and she has already made it clear that she alone can maintain the national unity of the country, in an often-repeated election theme.
Yet her options continue to diminish as the number of deaths in the Punjab rises.
It was only two weeks ago, on Feb. 14, that a delegation of moderates from the Sikh's political party, the Akali Dal, arrived in New Delhi for tripartite talks with the government and the parliamentary opposition to discuss Sikh religious and political demands.
The moderates had already reportedly embarked on secret talks with two of Mrs. Gandhi's most trusted aides. The core of the discussions, said one source privy to the talks, was that the Akali's veteran leader, Harchand Singh Longowal , would endorse a government crackdown on the extremists. But Longoway, whose power has eroded dramatically at the hands of Sikh militants over the past year, would do so only if the government would cede some of his less controversial demands.
These include a more equitable sharing of river waters and making the capital Chandigarh, now shared between Haryana and the Punjab, the sole capital of the Sikh-dominated Punjab.
Barely had the leaders assembled in the capital when violence erupted, not only in the Punjab, but in neighbouring Haryana's Hindi belt. In three days of mayhem, this latter area has seen a new and alarming Hindu fundamentalism, far more severe than the predicted backlash.
A holy Sikh shrine at Panipat was burned to the ground; a mob of 8,000 Hindus , bent on revenge, attacked other Sikh temples, burning and looting Sikh shops. They dragged Sikhs from cars and buses, tearing off their turbans and forcibly shaving their face and heads. (Sikh law demands the wearing of turbans, and shaving is forbidden by any man).
Before the flames died away in Haryana, the Akali leders had stormed out of the New Delhi talks and, for the moment, another, even tenuous, small opening was lost.