India's Punjab: violence spirals in wake of raid on Sikh radicals
New Delhi — New violence and a growing political storm have swept through the north Indian state of Punjab after police raided the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, to drive out extremists. Sikhs went on a shooting spree late last week in the state, killing 11 people in three days, in retaliation for the April 30 police action, authorities said.
Punjab's moderate Sikh government of Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala, who ordered the raid, was jolted when three local Cabinet ministers and two powerful leaders of the ruling party, Akali Dal, resigned. The officials condemned the police entry and called it an act of ``grave sacrilege and utter disrespect.''
While many Sikhs and Indians welcomed last week's tough action, many also worried about the outcome. With opposition building, the future of the Barnala government is shaky, political observers say.
``This is serious,'' said Khushwant Singh, a New Delhi political commentator. ``If this landslide continues, Mr. Barnala will be in an awkward position of ruling the state without a party majority.''
Most of India's 13 million Sikhs live in Punjab State. Many Sikhs have been demanding greater autonomy for Punjab within India for several years; extremists want to establish a separate nation.
Last week's raid was the second time in less than two years that Indian security forces have entered the Golden Temple to rout Sikh separatists accused of running a terrorist campaign in Punjab.
In June 1984, the Indian Army assaulted the shrine to drive out fundamentalist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his extremist followers. One thousand people, including Mr. Bhindranwale, died in the attack.
Five months later, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by two Sikh security guards to avenge the assault. That triggered Hindu-led rioting in which 3,000 Sikhs died.
Last week's raid was provoked when militant leaders proclaimed a new nation of ``Khalistan'' and declared ``war'' on the state and central governments. Extremists had been in control of the Golden Temple since January, when they ousted the shrine's leadership.
Although police claimed the 13-hour operation was a success, five extremists wanted for issuing the Khalistan declaration escaped. Punjabi police chief Julio Ribeiro admitted that reprisals, particularly against minority Hindus in the Sikh-dominated state, were inevitable.
``We expect retaliation against Hindus in rural areas, and we have stepped up our raids on terrorist hideouts,'' said Mr. Ribeiro. ``But it does not appear terrorism can be wiped out in a hurry.''
The police incursion into the temple has also thrown Punjab into political turmoil. Longtime opponents and rivals are threatening to undermine Barnala's leadership and support in the state.
Two veteran Akali Dal leaders, Parkash Singh Badal, a former Punjab chief minister, and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who headed the Golden Temple and other Sikh shrines, resigned after the raid.
Mr. Tohra, considered one of Punjab's most powerful politicians, was among the leaders overthrown by the militants last January. Mr. Badal and Amrinder Singh, the state's agriculture minister, who also resigned in protest, are frequently mentioned as challengers to the chief minister. The leaders claim they control half of the Akali Dal's 73-seat majority in Punjab's 117-seat legislature.
``They have always been angling for that position,'' says one political analyst. ``They are obviously exploiting the situation.'' If Barnala's government falls, it could have grave consequences for the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The recent outbreak of violence, in which more than 150 people have been killed in two months, has shattered the fragile peace accord signed by the prime minister with Sikh moderates last summer.
Worried by the wave of terrorist attacks, the prime minister had been putting pressure on Barnala to stand up to the militants. Gandhi sent in police and central government officials to assist Barnala and applauded the decision to flush out the terrorists.