Temple siege over, but no end in sight to Sikh unrest

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In what will no doubt be viewed as a major victory for the antiterrorism tactics of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, almost 50 Sikh extremists surrendered yesterday at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The dramatic late-afternoon surrender ended an eight-day siege of the sacred shrine by several thousand Indian security forces trying to rout Sikh extremists battling for their own homeland, which they would call Khalistan (Land of the Pure), in Punjab State.

``All the terrorists who were in the Golden Temple have surrendered,'' K.P.S Gill, Punjab's director general of police, said triumphantly at a press conference following the surrender.

The success at hand, however, is shadowed by the fact that authorities still face a struggle to put an end to Sikh terrorism throughout Punjab.

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Just before the surrender, Sikhs launched new attacks in retaliation for the blockade and bombardment of the temple complex.

These retaliations have left more than 80 people dead in the past two days. This brings to more than 900 the number killed this year in the worst wave of Sikh-related violence since the insurgency began five years ago.

To bring this violence to an end, Mr. Gandhi must find a way to revive efforts for a political solution. One such effort seems at this point to have failed: The temple's chief priest, Jasbir Singh Rode, whom Gandhi released from prison in March in hopes that Mr. Rode could persuade the militants to drop their demands for a Sikh homeland, remains in prison after his arrest last week for attempting to enter the complex.

Gandhi will also have to find a way for the police to prevent extremists, who have used the temple as headquarters for their campaign, from repeating this incident. (Not all Sikhs support the actions of the militants.)

On Wednesday, police officials said they would not send security forces into the main temple area but would work with religious organizations to clear the complex of weapons and establish controls over the shrine. The government rejects the idea of an occupation of the temple complex, and insists that the Sikh community itself must keep its use in check.

The surrender came one day after the paramilitary troops launched an assault on several buildings inside the temple complex, but refrained from attacking the gilded sanctuary where most of the extremists were hiding.

Yesterday's surrender was a breakthrough for the government, which took a cautious approach in dealing with the extremists' occupation for fear of outraging Sikhs in the north Indian state.

In 1984, the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, to drive out Sikh extremists who had fortified the structures. Four months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the attack, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, triggering vicious anti-Sikh rioting in northern India. The violence embittered many Sikhs and fueled their campaign of terrorism throughout Punjab State.

The surrender brought a dramatic end to the siege, which began May 9 when extremists shot a senior police official at the temple and then barricaded the shrine.

On Sunday, 146 men, women, and children gave up and left the complex. At the same time, more than 40 extremists fled into the gold-plated inner sanctum that gives the complex its name.

By using the shrine's most sacred place as a hide-out, these 40 extremists presented a dilemma for officials, who refused to fire on the sanctuary or enter the pavement area bordering a large pool where the temple sits. The Sikhs would consider damage to the sanctuary a serious offense.

That approach paid off when police officials urged the militants to surrender late Wednesday afternoon. After waving yellow and orange cloths from windows, 46 militants walked single file across a narrow causeway over the pool and around the pavement with their hands above their heads.

Two people were shot as they attempted to bolt from the group as it left the sanctuary. And police said that three extremists committed suicide by swallowing poison as they left the temple sanctuary.

After taking in the extremists just outside the main temple area, police searched the militants, forcing them to unwind their long turbans. The turbans are a symbol of the Sikhs, who do not cut their hair as part of their religion.

Two militants were then sent back into the temple complex to retrieve any remaining militants. They returned with one who had insisted on holding out in the sanctuary.

About 30 people died in the 10-day standoff at the temple. The turning point, said a high-ranking law officer, came when 146 people surrendered on Sunday. After that, ``it was just a case of nerves.''

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