The Punjab - preserving India's unity

India is going through one of those challenging times that test democracies, as the forces of national unity struggle with those of sectionalism and religious identity. What emerges from this challenge will depend not only on the wisdom and political skill of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but also on the maturity of the Indian nation.

The world offers support and compassion for the Indian people as they strive once again to strengthen the fabric of their nation against the forces of religious or regional sectionalism that would unravel it. Just as this effort is nothing new for India, so it has been made in other democracies. Witness the contemporary upheaval in Northern Ireland, and the Basque separatist movement in Spain.

English-speaking Canada, too, has had to deal with similar problems, albeit without major violence, with French-speaking Quebec. More than a century ago the United States stood in peril of being divided against itself, with American firing upon American in the Civil War. Both Canada and the US have withstood these challenges, and the way is open for India to do likewise.

It can be debated whether Mrs. Gandhi could have avoided the need to storm the Sikhs' revered Golden Temple in the state of Punjab with heavy fatalities. So can the timing of her action. There is the view that if she had been more accommodating to past demands of moderate-led Sikhs, the radicalized Sikh movement would not have gained such strength. And there is the perspective that, once the pattern of violence by extremist Sikhs became established, the Indian government long ago ought to have forced a military showdown.

Yet by the time that Mrs. Gandhi chose to act, the escalating violence by Sikh radicals had posed a threat to the nation sufficiently strong that she had little choice but to crush the terrorism.

One considerable concern is whether the invasion of the temple will result in substantial numbers of previously moderate Sikhs becoming radicalized; in the immediate aftermath of the military action, street protests from Sikhs were loud and sharp.

In any case, the ultimate outcome will now be determined by actions yet to be taken by India - not only its government but also its people, including Sikhs.

Partition is not the answer. India needs to move toward coherence as a country, rather than toward a splintering.

After having been firm on quashing Sikh terrorism - an effort still under way in the countryside - Mrs. Gandhi should also show understanding and flexibility in dealing with Sikh demands and sensibilities. She might consider making reasonable concessions, such as recognizing Chandigarh as exclusively the capital of Punjab; it now is also the capital of a neighboring state.

For their part the Sikhs should realize that continued terrorism or bitterness will help neither them nor their country. Like the New Delhi government, they should begin to work to improve relationships between Delhi and the Punjab so as to strengthen, not weaken, the Indian nation.

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