Indian Army apparently fails to squelch militant Sikh movement

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: 5 things to know about Sikhism

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.

Hundreds of armed security men from the central reserve police guard the old district court buildings in Patiala, Firozpur, and Jalandhar, where the trials are being held.

All of the once grand old buildings have been converted into special courts that have been set up especially to try alleged extremists under the harsh Terrorist-Affected Areas Act. The Indian Parliament hastily passed this act in August amid opposition protest.

Under the new legislation - which some lawyers say is the harshest and most unjust judicial measure in India's independent history - proceedings are held in camera at the public prosecutor's request. The identity of witnesses need not be revealed, and the Evidence Act has been amended so that any defendent is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

The accused are permitted defense counsel, yet lawyers by and large do not know who has been arrested, let alone who is about to be tried.

Members of the Lawyers' Forum for Civil Rights, a group of 100 lawyers who have offered to defend special-court cases free of charge, have spent months trying to find documentation. They have met with a noncooperative official response.

Bail is inadmissible. And, even more bewildering to a host of lawyers and judges interviewed this week, is the fact that the central government now appears intent upon using the controversial special courts to try nearly everyone under arrest in the Punjab. ''Terrorist'' is being used to describe the area where the crime was committed, not the offense.

Bikramajit Singh is a high school student now in the maximum security prison at Nabha, Punjab. He was arrested at his home by the Indian Army on June 7, the day after the Golden Temple raid. Bikramajit was charged under the National Security Act with firing shots into the Rajinder Hospital - in which no one was injured - on an unspecified day in May.

The ''first information report,'' filed after he was taken into custody, listed no names; nor did it cite the kind of arms that ostensibly were used, or the presumed victims, or the motive involved. It only accused Bikramajit of intending to kill Hindus.

Outside the fetid prison in Nabha, 27 miles from Patiala's special court, an average of 100 families and two dozen lawyers wait patiently on Tuesdays and Thursdays, visiting days. Some are permitted inside to see relatives or clients for the first time in four months. But there is no guarantee. Many are turned away.

Such scenes are repeated at the military detention camp at Suratgarli, in neighboring Rajasthan. Here, 378 Sikh soldiers who deserted their units at nearby Ganganager on the night of June 7-8 await court-martial. In all, at least 2,000 Sikh soldiers - perhaps as many as 5,000 - mutinied after the Golden Temple assault.

But, as with the civil prisoners being held in Punjab, lawyers and civil libertarians do not know the numbers, nor where they are being held, nor whether they have been informed of their right to civilian counsel. The Army has ignored all appeals.

Six former Indian Army commanders have written to President Zail Singh requesting that the deserters be treated ''sympathetically and leniently.''

The retired generals say that they are increasingly disturbed by reports that the soldiers may be court-martialed as deserters and mutineers.

As reports continue to gain currency that the courts-martial may have begun - in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Poona, according to an outlawed Sikh students' group - and that the soldiers are being mistreated in military custody, Khushwant Singh, the Sikh historian and member of Parliament, has petitioned the Supreme Court. After two preliminary hearings, he has had no results.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...