India's Gandhi: `tougher action' on Punjab. Premier presses state leaders to counter Sikh extremist violence
New Delhi — As violence continues to surge in the northern state of Punjab, the Indian government is threatening to reimpose ``President's rule,'' or direct rule by the central government, in an effort to deal with terrorism. In a press conference Tuesday, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi warned about the possibility of President's rule.
``The question really is, when is the right time to do it,'' he said.
Though Mr. Gandhi admitted he didn't think the time was right yet, it has become increasingly clear that the government has been unable to bring about a political solution to the country's worst internal crisis in this decade.
After Sikh militants intensified their push for greater religious and political autonomy for Punjab in 1982, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed President's rule in 1983. It was lifted in September 1985. Most of India's 14 million Sikhs (2 percent of the total population) live in Punjab State, where Hindus account for nearly half the population.
The conflict has claimed thousands of lives in the past four years - in Sikh terrorist attacks, in revenge attacks by Hindus, and in security actions. Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, apparently in retaliation for ordering an Army raid on Amritsar's Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine.
Mr. Gandhi also accused India's neighbor and arch foe, Pakistan, of being involved in the Sikh extremist movement for a separate state known as Khalistan.
``It has been proved beyond doubt that a foreign hand is involved.... We have gone to Pakistan and talked to them,'' he said yesterday.
In recent months, the Punjab state government has been seen as increasingly unable to counter terrorism. Despite strong police actions, it's ability to act has been undermined by divisiveness in the ruling Sikh Akali Dal party.
Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala has recently come under strong pressure from the central government.
At a meeting last week, Gandhi reportedly told Barnala what the central government expected him to do to end the killings. Exactly what these measures are remain unclear.
But this past weekend, local security forces arrested 50-60 persons, including a suspected Sikh terrorist, in an area adjoining the Sikh Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.
Last week's meeting is considered crucial to the future of Punjab and Barnala's government.
A high-level ministerial team has reportedly been assigned to monitor the implementation of the measures by Punjab's government.
``We don't know how long we can carry on like this. The Punjab government must take tougher action,'' Gandhi asserted.
``It's not adequate to look at the problem as a cut-and-dried terrorist problem. It has to be tackled on many levels,'' the prime minister added.
He also accused the Punjab government of failing to ``stand by'' the terms of a 1985 peace accord, which he had helped negotiate with the moderate Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal. Sikh extremists assassinated Mr. Longowal in August 1985, a month after the accord was signed.
The main point of the accord is transferring possession of Chandigarh, the capital that Punjab shares with neighboring Haryana State, to Punjab. But the terms of this transfer have been caught in a legalistic mire that neither side has been able to resolve.
To a degree, conditions in Punjab improved after the appointment last year of police chief Julius Ribeiro, a tough official who organized successful campaigns and arrested several suspected Sikh extremists. Mr. Ribeiro himself, however, reportedly told a recent press briefing in Chandigarh that terrorism was not under control in Punjab, and urged a ``redoubled effort'' to combat it.