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INDIS'S SIKHS

By Vyvyan TenorioSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1986



New Delhi

This proud minority's demands for greater autonomy catalyzed into an increasingly violent campaign after the Army's 1984 raid on the Golden Temple. Many Sikhs view it as an attack on their community and dismiss the government's stand that it was a justified move against armed radicals. Sikhs feel they need a morale booster to regain a sense of belonging to India. FOR India's minority Sikh community, recent years have been a period of darkness, marked by a growing sense of bitterness, humiliation, fear, and uncertainty over the future.

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Two years ago on the night of June 5-6, 1984, Indian Army troops raided the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the country's 16 million Sikhs. From within the temple's precincts, a band of militant Sikhs headed by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had led a two-year campaign of armed defiance against the central government. Mr. Bhindranwale, several hundred Sikhs, and about 50 soldiers died in the battle.

With that quick but costly assault, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government had hoped to break the recently revived Sikh independence movement.

But five months later, Mrs. Gandhi was shot by Sikh bodyguards. And today, the number of Sikh extremists and their supporters has multiplied. The push for a separate state of Khalistan (``nation of the pure'') has escalated. The prosperous state of Punjab, the Sikhs' homeland, lies vulnerable to Sikh terrorist activity as well as Hindu retaliatory attacks.

Violence has intensified in recent months, in which nearly 250 people have died -- most of them Hindus killed by Sikh extremists. As tension grows, Hindus are migrating from Punjab to other states; Sikhs outside Punjab are moving back there or overseas.

``The Sikhs are currently in a very confused state, starting from the humiliation they suffered from events in 1984 up to the present time,'' says Manmohan Singh, a prominent Sikh businessman. ``Suddenly, they find that their historic position of strength as soldiers, farmers, and businessmen has disappeared.'' Suspicion, alienation sow doubt

Although their role in India's politics, military, business, and professions may have diminished only slightly in recent years, Sikhs have complained of discrimination or harassment. Many Sikhs say they are looked upon with suspicion. Several say they are doubtful of their future in a country where they feel insecure and alienated from the community at large.

``Now it's almost as if the entire Sikh community is treated as traitors,'' says Saroop Bomrah Singh, a 38-year old artist and woodcraftsman.

In the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, when more than 2,000 Sikhs were killed within a week in the capital, journalist Taveleen Singh observed: ``There's a great deal of tension now, for fear of a similar outbreak. . . .''

Despite initial efforts by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to redress their grievances, Sikhs are becoming increasingly cynical over what they see as his failure to pursue the initiatives -- such as giving control of the shared state capital of Chandigarh to Punjab (a move postponed from January until later this month), redrawing state boundaries, and sharing river waters.

Analysts say that divisions and infighting among the Sikh leadership are as much to blame as the central government for the current situation.

Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's 750 million population. In Punjab, they constitute a 52 percent majority. Historically, however, they have had a greater influence over India's economy and politics than their numbers alone suggest.

Sikhism was founded some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 teachers or ``gurus,'' who shunned the caste-bound beliefs of Hinduism, India's historic religion, as well as the Islamic religion of the Mogul emperors. The word ``sikh'' means disciple. Guru Nanak tried to combine Hindu and Islamic tenets in a monotheistic creed. Over time, Sikhs gradually developed into a militaristic force to counter religious persecution from Muslim rulers. They also feared their religion would be absorbed into Hinduism, a concern voiced even today. The last guru, Gobind Singh, began a new order, the ``khalsa.'' He forbade them to cut their hair or beards and required them to carry a comb and dagger, and wear a steel bangle and breeches.