Indian Army apparently fails to squelch militant Sikh movement
Rather than ''breaking the back of the terrorist movement,'' as the Indian government had earlier claimed, last June's Army assault on the holiest Sikh shrine could have signaled only the end of one bloody chapter in the Punjab State's recent history.Skip to next paragraph
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A second, more dangerous phase appears to be in progress.
In the 17 weeks since the guns in the Golden Temple fell silent on the night of June 6, violence in the strategically set Punjab has claimed an average of 18 deaths a week.
According to Punjab government officials, 107 Sikh extremists have died in shoot-outs with the Army or police since the temple raid; another 200 people have died at extremists' hands.
Incidents since the move to clear the temple of Sikh extremists suggest that the followers of the late Sikh leader, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, can still strike at will: two Indian jetliners have been hijacked by Sikh extremists; two major canals in the Punjab have been breached; bombs were exploded inside a cinema and in the midst of a Hindu religious procession in the Punjab last week; and last month eight Hindus were taken out of a bus and killed.
Army officers concede in private that they have not been as successful as they had hoped in weeding out Sant Bhindranwale's supporters, scattered throughout the Punjab.
One reason is clearly that new waves of extremists are being created. The Punjab's alienation serves as their breeding ground. Another is that many from Bhindranwale's original command, who went underground after the temple invasion, are now slowly returning to the heart of Punjab.
The relative ease with which this correspondent was able two months ago to set up an appointment with the acting president of the outlawed All-India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) would seem to corroborate the authorities worst fears - that the militant Sikh movement is reorganizing and regrouping, setting up new structures and chains of command.
For two months since the raid, AISSF leader Atinder Pal Singh lived underground. A 25-year-old former law student from the Punjab's upper-middle class, he was inside the Golden Temple with Bhindranwale on May 29, along with other AISSF leaders, who had faithfully served Bhindranwale as a ''Praetorian Guard'' since 1980.
That night, according to Atinder, two days before the Army began moving in, Bhindranwale hastily summoned his followers inside the temple complex.
''He had just received word from New Delhi that the Army was on its way, and told us that 'the movement will not be sacrificed to (Indian Prime Minister Indira) Gandhi's Hindu, pro-Soviet military machine.' '' Six hundred out of 1, 000 extremists were ordered to evacuate.
Large numbers chose ironically to go underground in the heart of India's Hindi belt. Others crossed the border to Pakistan and Nepal.
Inside the maximum security prison at Nabha are another 200 to 300 alleged ''hard core'' followers of Bhindranwale, who are about to stand trial. Yet no one - neither families nor lawyers - knows who the defendents are.
Three special courts in the Punjab began secret trials of alleged Sikh extremists late last month. Thus far, they have concerned themselves with only the petty offenses of carrying - not using - ''unlicensed firearms.''
But for the others - and lawyers estimate that a total of 400 to 500 followers of the militant, fundamentalist preacher are under arrest - no charges have been issued. There is only the vague accusation of ''waging war against the state,'' which carries a minimum sentence of life in prison and a maximum sentence of death.
In addition to the alleged hard-core extremists, another 2,000 Sikhs in the Punjab remain under arrest. And, with interrogations completed, it is assumed they will face trial.