Turmoil in India's Punjab; Why Sikhs' zeal has turned violent

TO the Sikhs, this city is Mecca. Each year, thousands of pilgrims come here to worship in the Golden Temple. It is the holiest symbol of their faith.

More important, it is a starting point toward understanding why some of these descendants of ancient warriors have turned to acts of modern-day terrorism.

India's northwest Punjab State has been shredded with violence. In the past three years, more than 375 people have been killed.

Last month, Sikh extremists assassinated a leading Hindu politician. As Hindus protested the murder, sectarian violence erupted, and at least 14 people were killed.

But fighting among Sikh factions has created even more casualties. A vast majority of the Punjabi victims in the past three years have been Sikhs. Many of these have been Nirankaris, members of a breakaway sect which is persecuted by Sikh extremists.

Recently, extremists have been attacking moderate Sikhs who want to negotiate with the government for more local autonomy and religious distinction. Among the most recent victims are a newspaper editor who had called for negotiations and his cousin, an Air Force officer.

There are some 13 million Sikhs in India, less than 2 percent of the total population. But some 8 million Sikhs live in the Punjab, where they make up 52 percent of the population; the other 48 percent are Hindu. Their high concentration, common religion, and majority status here have fueled Sikh nationalism.

At the head of the nationalistic tide is the boisterous Akali Dal. As a political entity, this party is deeply divided between the moderate faction led by Harchand Singh Longowal, and the minority, more militant, Talwandi faction.

Opposing the Akali Dal is Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Punjab's most powerful and militant leader. His followers come mainly from the illegal All-India Sikh Students Federation.

Internal dissension has not calmed the Sikhs' wide array of demands on the government in New Delhi. The various factions all want more political, economic, and religious autonomy. They want a new and enlarged Punjab state, which would incorporate Punjabi-speaking parts of the surrounding states of Himachal Pradesh , Haryana, and Rajasthan.

In addition, the Akali Sikhs want the Indian Constitution amended to give such a state full powers of government, except for defense, foreign relations, currency, telecommunications, and railways.

The extremists have called for secession from India and the formation of a state called Kalistan.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has resisted the Sikh demands. The Punjab is India's leading agricultural producer and one of its wealthiest states.

The Punjab is also a strategic spot along the sensitive Indo-Pakistani border. Mrs. Gandhi, as leader of the world's largest democracy, believes that granting any more autonomy to the Sikhs would fuel similar movements in other states and threaten the Indian Republic.

ALTHOUGH India's home affairs minister, Prakash Chand Sethi, has said India would never tolerate the formation of Khalistan, the government has agreed to talk with Sikhs about revisions in the Constitution that would classify the Sikh faith as separate from Hinduism.

Extremist Sikhs and Hindus objected to talks with the government, however, and violence erupted the next day. This led Mrs. Gandhi to send in paramilitary troops and declare a state of emergency, which allows government forces to shoot on sight. This is an extension of the state of emergency declared last October.

It has been reported that elements within the local police are sympathetic to the Sikh cause and have not acted vigorously to quell the violence. This is apparently one of the reasons government troops were sent in.

Working in the government's favor is the Sikhs' lack of a united political front. Yet the people are bound by the common glue of their religion: Sikhs identify with each other first, and with the Republic of India second.

Sikh means ''disciple'' or follower of the faith. Sikhism is based on the 15 th-century teachings of Guru Nanak and a line of nine gurus who succeeded him. Initially, the faith taught religious tolerance and social justice. But persecution under India's Mogul rulers ended the pacifism.

In 1699, the 10th and last guru, Gobind Singh, established a military fraternity known as the Khalsa. These ''warriors of God'' vowed to willingly lose their lives for the faith and to fight the central authority of the Muslim rulers. Thus, the Sikhs became revolutionaries dedicated to reforming society and serving others.

Five kakkars symbolize a Khalsa's vow: long, uncut hair usually worn under a turban; a comb to hold his hair; a pair of shorts; an iron bracelet; and a dagger. And, by order of Guru Gobind Singh, every Sikh calls himself ''Singh'' or lion.

Sikhism is neither Hindu nor Muslim, but a blend of elements from both. It rejects the caste system and idols of Hinduism, favoring one God and the teachings of gurus as set forth in the Adi Granth, the Sikh holy book. It is a religion that sets the Sikhs apart from the rest of India and creates a situation ripe with tension.

At the center of Sikh pride is Amritsar, the walled holy city near the Indo-Pakistani border. In the center of Amritsar is the holy Golden Temple.

The breathtaking, two-story marble structure is built in the middle of a ''sacred tank.'' White walls resplendent with mosaics and inlays of semiprecious stones are mirrored in the calm water. The temple is named for its gold-leafed domes, which blend Muslim and Hindu archi-tecture.

A steady stream of faithful check their shoes at the outer gate, wash their feet to show respect, and pad toward the jewel-like temple. The men wear brightly colored turbans and their small curved daggers. Uncut beards add to their air of dignity and wisdom. The Sikh women are viewed as equals in society and a family comes together to worship.

Once inside, they throw offerings of money or flowers onto a pad before the Sikh holy book. There is no ritual or ceremony, just three musicians sitting cross-legged behind the book, singing hymns to the glory of God. An amplifier sends the melodies throughout the compound.

Sitting in a cool marble recess along the outer compound wall, I escape the sun - but not the curious stares of worshippers. A temple guard gestures for me to take his photograph.

A dark-skinned boy of seven or eight stops to stare at this Westerner in blue jeans, T-shirt, and floppy hat. The guard puts on a stern face and shoos him away with a long-handled ax-like weapon he carries. With a chuckle, he gestures to me for another photo.

As the sun sets, I join hundreds of pilgrims in a huge community dining hall. We crouch together in long lines on the floor. Young boys put brass plates before us and fill them with rice, chapati, and beans. The meal is free, distributed by the temple's kitchen twice a day to all visitors regardless of caste, creed, or nationality.

In other, caste-conscious parts of India, such mixing is unthinkable. This simple act of eating together is yet another way the Sikhs have set themselves apart from mainstream India.

The temple also maintains a free hostel for pilgrims. Again, all are welcome for up to three nights if the Sikh ban on alcohol and tobacco is respected.

After nightfall, I walk narrow, bustling streets filled with aromas of curries, sticky sweets, and layers of dust and grime.

''May I be of service?'' asks a tall, broad Sikh with a British accent. ''I am Colonel Singh.''

I accept his invitation for tea and follow the colonel to his office. The small, neat room is filled with a bed, dresser, desk, and two huge British Enfield motorcycles from the 1950s.

''I am in love with these machines,'' he says fondly. The colonel is retired from the Indian Army. Like many Sikhs, he runs a small trucking company. Sikhs have made themselves indispensible to a country whose goods move by truck.

Colonel Singh is well educated and does not mind discussing politics. I ask him if the Sikhs want a separate state.

''It is a difficult question,'' he replies, leaning toward me. As he explains it, the Sikhs view the Punjab as their home and Amritsar as the center of their faith.

''We know we are part of India,'' he says, ''and that makes us Indians. But we are still Sikhs and the Indian government must allow us to be who we are.''

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