Sikhs vie for upper hand in India's Punjab

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A tense new episode is unfolding in the more than four years of violence in India's troubled Punjab State. The death toll in Sikh extremist related violence has risen steadily this year, and Sikh separatists again control the Golden Temple, the hub of religion and politics in the state.

In recent weeks, militants advocating an independent Sikh homeland have ousted the chief priest of the temple. Other temple leaders have urged Sikhs to rally behind the extremists. Pilgrims have been scared away. And militants, police officials say, are using the shrine as a staging ground for attacks.

``This could escalate into something that brings tough action by the government,'' warns analyst Janardan Thakur.

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In May, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the moderate Sikh government in Punjab, imposed central government rule, and ordered a police crackdown.

The killings have jumped sharply since then. More than 800 people have been killed this year, more than the number murdered during all of 1986.

Throughout their separatist campaign, Sikh militants have vied for control of the Golden Temple. In Sikh-dominated Punjab, temple leaders exert religious and political clout and control vast economic resources.

Sikhs make up only about 2 percent of India's 780 million people, but 52 percent of Punjab's 18 million people. The majority of Punjab Sikhs are believed to be moderates who want only greater autonomy and better treatment from the Hindu-dominated central government.

So far, police have stopped short of a new showdown with extremists inside the temple. Over a week ago, police raided offices and hostels near the temple complex but did not enter the sacred inner courtyard where many militants fled. Twice before, the Indian government ordered forces into the shrine. A June 1984 attack to drive out armed extremists killed more than 700, and enraged Sikh moderates and militants.

The departure of the temple's moderate chief priest, Darshan Singh Ragi, will make it easier for militants to exert influence from the temple, analysts say. In August, Mr. Ragi said he was ``retreating'' from the temple to avoid a conflict with the extremists. He had angered them by speaking out against the killing of innocent people and extortion of money from businessmen and pilgrims to finance terrorism.

Observers say the militants have become more unified in recent months as infighting among extremist groups has abated. Later this month, the militants have called a mass meeting at the temple to rally support.

Some analysts urge the government to take a more conciliatory stance. Mr. Gandhi could win moderates' support by freeing young Sikhs captured during the 1984 Army attack and punishing government officials involved in anti-Sikh rioting.

``Unless the government acts soon, [it] will face a widespread Sikh movement that is militant and adamantly secessionist,'' one political commentator says.

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