New Delhi — It was one of the worst 24-hour periods in the history of modern India. At least 250 Sikh extremists and 60 Army officers and men had died, and 450 suspected militants had been arrested inside Sikhdom's holiest shrine. The Army had expected to finish the operation in 48 hours. It took five days.
Many are asking in New Delhi why so many had to die. Reliable sources suspect the Army was operating under ''shoot-to-kill orders'' and wanted few to come out alive.
Among those who did not come out alive was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant Sikh leader. His body was found in Amritsar's Golden Temple complex Thursday, following a 24-hour gun battle between his followers and the Indian Army's special paramilitary force.
Two of his key lieutenants were also found. With rigid censorship still imposed, it was impossible to know if they had been killed by the Gurkha assault forces, which stormed the temple complex at dawn Wednesday - or, if, as they had so long threatened, they had committed suicide, ensuring martyrdom for themselves as warriors, and for their crusade for more Sikh autonomy.
As the news flashed throughout India, there were mixed reactions of relief, revenge, and shock. Scores of Sikhs attempted to march to Amritsar from New Delhi, and from villages in the Punjab, to recover Sant Bhindranwale's body and perform last rites. They were immediately arrested by the Army or the police, under special regulations now in force in most parts of India, which prevent marches or public assemblage.
As of dawn Thursday, all firing had stopped around the temple complex, the official government briefer said, and the Army's ''operation Punjab'' had come to a bloody end.
What really happened in Amritsar is the quintessential question which will take some time to answer. For five days the Punjab has been cut off from the rest of the world. There is a 24-hour curfew. All telephone and telex lines are cut. No foreigners are permitted entry, and on Tuesday, all Indian journalists were expelled. There are no newspapers, no trains, no buses - not even a bullock cart can move.
Of the 1,000 moderate and militant Sikhs who once lived on the Golden Temple's grounds, all are either dead or under Army arrest. The two top leaders of the Sikhs' more moderate political party, the Akali Dal, are under ''Army protection,'' detained in Amritsar.
Why Prime Minister Indira Gandhi moved now is another imponderable. But one consensus is that Mrs. Gandhi's feared that she was being shown as powerless, that she was loosening her once iron grip, and that she would suffer electoral losses in the northern Hindi belt.
But, most important, according to a key aide, was fear of starvation: The Akali Dal leaders, joined by the Punjabi ''jat'' farmers, had threatened to disrupt the flow of wheat from the Punjab to India's impoverished states. They were to begin their agitation last Sunday.
On Saturday night, Mrs. Gandhi sent the Army in.
For the past two years, Sant Bhindranwale, sheltered in the Golden Temple, had advocated armed defiance of the government and, says the government, had masterminded, along with his followers, some 500 Hindu and Sikh deaths.
Also killed were the president of the Sikh Student Federation, Amrik Singh, and a retired major general of the Indian Army, Shuhbeg Singh.
With the end of the siege of the Golden Temple, government spokesmen claim government forces have ''broken the back'' of the Sikh terrorist movement which, in the last three months, had led to 300 deaths in the beleaguered Punjab State alone.
But they issued nationwide alert orders to security forces Thursday, fearing yet more violent reaction to the storming of Sikhdom's most hallowed shrine. The siege has already led to rioting in New Delhi, Kashmir, Amritsar, Chandigarh, and other Punjabi cities and towns.