Indian leader makes overtures on visit to troubled Sikh area

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched a fence-mending mission yesterday in the heartland of Sikh separatism. On his first visit to Punjab State in three years, Mr. Gandhi appealed to moderate Sikhs to fight extremism. But analysts said he offered little to break the deadlock between the central government and militants who demand a Sikh homeland they call Khalistan.

``I am not against the Sikhs in Punjab, but against the terrorists who have no religion and will be crushed at all costs,'' Gandhi said during one of his stops. More than 1,800 people have died in terrorist attacks this year.

Gandhi's visit, which came amid heavy security, was aimed at soothing moderate Sikhs who have been estranged from the government since the Indian Army's 1984 attack on their holiest shrine. In courting this community, India's most affluent, Gandhi offered a mix of economic measures and hints of political concessions.

The economic incentives included approval of a $17-million project by the American firm Pepsico, to produce snack foods, fruit juices, and soft drinks in Punjab. The plan was bitterly opposed by India's soft-drink lobby. But it won approval by promising to export 50 percent of production, bringing in precious foreign exchange.

Pepsi also rode in on political concerns about Punjab's economy. Observers say the five-year Sikh insurgency has been fueled by growing unemployment and disenchantment among the state's highly educated youth.

``However important these [economic] steps may be, they alone will not ... solve the problem,'' says Jagjit Singh Aurora, a prominent retired Sikh general.

On the eve of his trip, Gandhi announced the release of more than 130 of the estimated 350 people jailed without trial after the 1984 temple assault. But Sikh leaders also want the government to punish the instigators of anti-Sikh riots that followed Premier Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

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