Wrestling with India's Sikh crisis

THE success of Rajiv Gandhi's government in flushing out the armed Sikh militants from the Golden Temple after nearly a month-long siege would appear to be a political triumph in dealing with Sikh terrorism. The operations were carried out by the Punjabi police under its new Sikh chief of police, K.P.S. Gill, and units of the National Security Guards, an elite paramilitary force created in 1985. All of this is in contrast to the frontal assault on the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in June 1984, ordered by the previous Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She was later assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards because of that attack. If only Mrs. Gandhi had chosen the same tactics, the Sikh crisis would not have reached its present proportions. But the political problem remains as before.

It should be clear that Mr. Gandhi will never accede to Sikh demands for an independent Khalistan. Given the representation of eight major religions and about 15 major languages in India, the Indian government will reject all theories of separate nationhood, whatever the logic or ethnic grievance. There is only the all-encompassing theory of one Indian nation despite the secession of Pakistan in 1947. India is a big enough country to resist indefinitely violent regional demands for independent Khalistans, Dravidastans, or Nagalands and yet go on functioning almost normally. But this is not to deny the need for a political solution in Punjab that will be acceptable to the Sikhs without alienating the Hindus.

Not all Sikh demands are unreasonable. As with demands by several states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, Sikhs demand greater political and economic autonomy for Punjab. Under Mrs. Gandhi, the central government had steadily tightened its hold over the states through political intervention and fiscal measures. Central government interference in the states has been especially bad in those controlled by non-Congress governments. This includes the dismissal in 1987 of Surjit Singh Barnala's Sikh Akali government in Punjab.

Punjab, in particular, has also complained that progressive states were being penalized through various taxation and subsidy systems, resulting in an unfair redistribution of wealth in favor of the less efficient states. The government has claimed that economic redistribution from the richer to the poorer states is just and applies to all states. These issues need to be resolved nationally through greater political and economic decentralization.

A second set of Sikh demands are more specific and involve disputes with Haryana on territorial transfers, the sharing of river waters, and the status of Chandigarh city. These problems arose in 1966 from Sikh demands for the separation of the new Hindu majority state of Haryana from Punjab so as to leave Punjab with a Sikh majority. None of these issues pose insurmountable obstacles. The size of the disputed territories is small, and a compromise was prevented in 1987 only by the Congress Party's electoral stakes among the Hindus in Haryana. As regards the waters issue, surely if India and Pakistan could resolve the question of river waters that flow through their respective Punjabs, Sikhs and Hindus could do the same within India.

The crux of the problem lies in the initial decision of the central government that Chandigarh should be the shared capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and subsequently the failure to transfer Chandigarh to Punjab in accordance with an agreement signed in September 1985 by Mr. Gandhi and the Sikh Akali Dal leader, Harchand Singh Longwal. The transfer has been held up pending a resolution of the territorial transfer issue, which Haryana claims as fair exchange. This has become the symbol of Sikh grievances and the cause of Sikh perceptions of central government perfidy. On the other hand, the basic Hindu complaint is that too much has already been conceded to the very prosperous Sikh community without any concessions on their part.

Finally, Sikhs demand that those responsible for killing Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination be brought to justice. The Sikhs have even alleged that a central government minister had systematically organized these killings. The government claims that the killings - as abhorrent as they were - were spontaneous and that not enough evidence could be marshaled against the perpetrators. This position has angered the Sikhs, since hundreds of them have been arrested on suspicion of being terrorists without strong evidence.

Meanwhile, as Sikh extremists continue with their strategy of terrorism against Hindus and moderate Sikhs, the government continues to respond with mass arrests and detentions without trials of Sikhs, and with armed encounters against suspected Sikh terrorists. Since the enemy is largely unknown, some innocent Sikhs are probably being incarcerated or killed, thus provoking more Sikhs to join the extremists. Sikhs also claim that the armed ``encounters'' are mainly ``fake'' and that innocent Sikhs are being slaughtered in the process. These Sikh claims are surely exaggerated if only partly true.

This deteriorating situation cannot be resolved unless Mr. Gandhi resolves the whole political issue and the Sikhs are brought back into the Indian mainstream. Otherwise, the Golden Temple will once again become a haven for Sikh terrorists four years hence.

Raju Thomas is professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a research fellow at the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988-89.

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