Sikh extremists keep heat on Gandhi. Standoff complicates solution to militants' calls for separate homeland
Amritsar, India — Despite signs of an end to a seige by Indian security force's of the Golden Temple, Sikh extremists and Indian troops remained at a standoff Sunday. The struggle to control the temple, the symbol of political and religious power in troubled Punjab state, greatly complicates Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's efforts to find a political solution to the calls of Sikh extremists for a separate homeland, to be called Khalistan.
At midday yesterday about 100 Sikhs surrendered, raising hopes that the seven-day seige by police and paramilitary forces was about to end.
Soon after, however, a group of about 30 extremists, taking advantage of a government cease-fire, left their hiding places as if to surrender, then dashed inside the main sanctuary of the multibuilding complex.
The surrender - which observers say is an indication that the militants are becoming increasingly desperate, had greatly improved the situation for the security forces by removing the women and children.
But the fact that 30 militants, out of about 70 still in the entire complex, were in the sanctuary made an end to the siege unlikely. Security forces have vowed not to fire on the temple's main sanctuary. ``This has upset our operation, but we will get them out,'' said a senior police official.
Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Gandhi has hesitated to order troops to storm the shrine, for fear of repeating a 1984 routing that left about 1,000 people dead. That incursion led to the assassination of Gandhi's mother, who was then prime minister, by two of her Sikh body guards. Her murder provoked widespread violence against Sikhs and fueled the insurgency which has become Gandhi's most serious domestic crisis.
Gandhi's early efforts to restore peace in the strategic and fertile Punjab dissolved as the government failed to keep promises under a 1985 peace accord and did not punish instigators of the anti-Sikh riots. A moderate Sikh government in Punjab, set up in the wake of the peace pact, was brought down by mounting Sikh militancy.
This year the militants have killed more than 800 people, including many Sikhs caught among warring extremist factions. The killings have created resentment of the terrorists by many Sikhs who do not support their calls for Khalistan. But officials fear another Army incursion into the temple could create new sympathy for the extremists.
``There are deep divisions among the Sikhs, but they are unified in their feelings against Gandhi's government,'' said a New Delhi newspaper editor. Sunday's exodus came after the extremists and about 2,000 troops had been locked in fierce gun battles since last week.
The people who left the shrine, some of whom were being treated for injuries, claimed they were visitors to the shrine.
But, ``Except for four people, they were all hardcore militants,'' said an Indian intelligence officer who was interrogating them.
One well-known militant, Surjit Singh, (alias Painta), wanted for an attack and massacre at a New Delhi birthday celebration last summer, committed suicide when the police recognized him.
The unrelenting violence and current standoff have left Gandhi's efforts to bring piece to Punjab in disarray. In March, Gandhi freed 45 imprisoned Sikhs, including Jasbir Singh Rode, who was elected the powerful chief priest of the Akal Takht, part of the Golden Temple.
The prime minister hoped Mr. Rode might convince militants to give up their demands for a separate homeland. But late last week, Rode himself was arrested as he tried to enter the Golden Temple to talk to the extremists.
Police officials claimed that Rode was arrested to prevent possible attacks on him by the extremists who were angered by the chief priest's recent statements calling for negotiations with the government.
An end to the standoff would leave many militants still at large. The extremists have consolidated control in major areas around Amritsar in recent months. The government also must find a lasting way to keep militants from using the temple as a fortress.