Despite killing of leader, Sikh-India accord likely to hold. Key factor is ability of Longowal's successor to unify Sikh factions
The accord between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and moderate Sikh leader, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, is likely to hold despite Mr. Longowal's assassination, according to political analysts and eminent members of the Sikh community here. However, the implementation of the accord will not be without ups and downs in the weeks ahead.Skip to next paragraph
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The most pressing question is who will succeed Mr. Longowal as head of the Akal Dal party, the main Sikh political organization.
Whoever steps into Longowal's shoes will feel honor bound to support the accord, says Khushwant Singh, a Sikh opposition member of the Indian Parliament. Mr. Singh believes the accord will hold because it has the near unanimous support of Sikhs, barring some radical factions.
A difficult task lies ahead for Longowal's successor. Longowal's assassination on Tuesday and the killings by Sikh extremists of several Hindu politicians belonging to Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) party in the past week, demonstrate the tenuous nature of the agreement.
The killing deprives the Akali Dal of credible moderate leadership and there is no clear heir apparent. Longowal's advisers apparently do not command enough widespread support to prevent opposition and dissent within the party.
Mr. Gandhi's administration has also been deprived of a moderate Sikh leader with whom to negotiate. The Sikh-Gandhi agreement, signed on July 24, was aimed at ending three years of disturbances in Punjab State by Sikhs seeking greater autonomy for the 13-million member religious minority. Sikh extremists, wanting complete autonomy, denounced the accord.
Gandhi had received much praise for his deft handling of the July accord. It was hailed as an achievement for the young prime minister who had the courage to set aside all inhibitions and personal history and come to the negotiating table. Gandhi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated last Oct. 31, by two Sikh bodyguards, presumably to avenge an Army attack on their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple. Conceding to almost every Akali demand, Gandhi also won the acclaim and sympathy of ma ny hitherto estranged Sikhs.
However, the effort was not without its critics. In his eagerness to resolve the problem the prime minister had set aside many of the accepted political norms that had barred his mother from reaching an early solution to the problem.
Putting all his eggs in Longowal's basket was a failure on Gandhi's part, critics say. But, would any other way have succeeded in a country where personalized leadership is so largely accepted and revered, one analyst asks.
Longowal was a relative newcomer to the Sikh political scene and was a compromise candidate for the Akali Dal party leadership when the Sikhs launched their first agitation in 1981. He gradually came to be accepted as a leader by most of the Akalis, and later as spokesman for the moderate elements of the Sikh community.
Longowal was the first to condemn violence, criticize the terrorists, and was the only Sikh leader to talk openly about amity between the Sikhs and Hindus thus becoming acceptable to the Punjabi Hindus as well.
His assassination came three days after Gandhi announced that elections would be held in Punjab on Sept. 22, despite warnings from Longowal and other opposition politicians that the state was not ready for elections and that premature polling might spark violence. The Indian Army has been placed on alert in Punjab and neighboring states and security was tightened in New Delhi. Shops, businesses, markets, and schools throughout Punjab were shut down in a statewide strike called by the Akali Dal to protes t the assassination.
When Sant Longowal signed the accord with Rajiv Gandhi on the evening of July 24, says one source close to the proceedings, the prime minister took off his bullet-proof vest and presented it to Longowal saying, ``Sant-ji, I will not be needing this anymore, but perhaps you will.''
Will Longowal's death deter Rajiv Gandhi from pushing ahead with his peace plans for Punjab? In the months he has been prime minister, he has shown his determination to get a job done regardless of the circumstances and the people he has to deal with. In New Delhi, the prime minister told Parliament that India would not yield to terrorism. ``We will fight terrorism with all our strength,'' he said before Parliament adjourned to mourn Longowal.
According to Khushwant Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, remains Indian's best bet and ``if anything happens to him, it will be the end of democracy. The country will dissolve into chaos and will be taken over by the Army.''