New Delhi — A third mutiny by Sikh soldiers in as many days has led to growing apprehension in the Indian Ministry of Defense. India is one of only a handful of third-world nations in which the Army has never involved itself in the country's politics.
But, with the sense of Sikh outrage continuing to swell over last week's assault by the Army on the Sikh's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in northern Amritsar, Defense Ministry officials now concede that revolts have broken out from eastern Rajasthan and Maharashtra and across the country to Bihar in the east.
Fifteen percent of the Indian Army - including some of its most elite divisions - are composed of Sikhs. (But Sikhs are less than 2 percent of the population.)
Monday morning, 43 of those Sikh soldiers from the Military Academy at Poona were arrested in Bombay, after commandeering Army vehicles, dressing them with the saffron Sikh national flag, and shooting indiscriminately as they veered down the national highway connecting Poona and Bombay.
On Sunday, in a crack infantry unit in the state of Bihar, 500 to 600 soldiers mutinied. Their commander, a Hindu brigadier-general, was shot and killed. Six other officers were injured. Then, again taking over Army vehicles and flying the flag, the soldiers headed for Punjab.
They were joined by civilian followers of the militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who died in last week's assault on the temple. Gun battles with the Army followed. According to unconfirmed reports, some 20 soldiers died, while others managed to escape.
What happened at Ganganager, Rajasthan over the weekend remains open to dispute. Unconfirmed reports claim that 200 to 400 Sikh soldiers openly rebelled , then eluded the Army and crossed into the Punjab. Defense Ministry officials claim that soldiers were not involved, but that followers of Sant Bhindranwale, dressed as Army ''jawans,'' had infiltrated sensitive Indian Army units guarding the Pakistani frontier.
In the view of Western defense sources, the second, official scenario is even more ominous than the first, if indeed the crack units facing Pakistan were porous enough to be infiltrated by the militants. India considers these units its impregnable shield against Pakistani attack.
The revolts have shaken Indira Gandhi, the Indian premier, who had carefully selected the six Army commanders who led the Golden Temple assault. Four, plus the general commanding officer, came from elite divisions of Sikhs. Of the others, one was Hindu and one Muslim.
But it is not known how many of the 15,000 troops which stormed the temple complex were drawn from the Sikhs.
According to assault battalion commander Lt. Col. Israr Khan, all of the soldiers who went into the temple volunteered to do so. The soldiers and their officers removed their shoulder patches and all identification marks to maintain secrecy about their units and formations.
But it is known that the invasion was led by an elitist, Gurkha assault force.
One of the bodies removed from Bhindranwale's basement command was that of the legendary retired Maj. Gen. Shuhbeg Singh. A Sikh and Indian nationalist who trained Bengali guerrillas on behalf of the Indian Army before the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, General Singh was credited with invaluable service toward the creation of Bangladesh.
In Bihar, his name was said to have been shouted by the rebellious Sikhs - as was that of ''Khalistan,'' a visionary, independent nation demanded by more radical Sikhs.
''He was a genius,'' says a senior Indian Army officer of Shuhbeg Singh. ''The fact that Bhindranwale's men performed as well as they did, is a tribute to Shuhbeg. . . . What radicalized him? I don't think anyone can say.''
''Sending the Army into the Golden Temple was not the answer,'' said one of India's most senior ambassadors, himself a Sikh.
''The Army went into Nagaland 30 years ago to put down an insurrection. The insurrection continues, and the Army is still there.''
It is still much too early for anyone to say if the incipient Sikh rebellion within the 944,000-man Indian Army will become a trend. But already, New Delhites are remembering the great mutiny of 1857-58, which almost disintegrated Britain's Indian empire - the jewel in the British crown.
''If our boys were fighting the Pakistanis, it would be over in a few days,'' one well-informed source said Monday. ''But, with the Sikh militants, nobody really knows.''