India's Separatism Tests New Prime Minister

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

INDIA'S new prime minister, V.P. Singh, is grappling with worrisome insurgencies in two crucial northern states. In Jammu and Kashmir state, his fledgling coalition government withstood its first test and won the release of the kidnapped daughter of a senior official.

Muslim separatists freed Rubia Sayeed, daughter of Home Minister Mohammed Sayeed, the first Muslim named to the key internal security post. In exchange, officials agreed to release five militants and not to punish the extremists.

The six-day kidnapping came on the heels of Mr. Singh's visit last week to the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in troubled Punjab state. The gesture of reconciliation was aimed at quelling the six-year Sikh separatist struggle in which thousands have died.

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While Singh may have scored points in Punjab, the kidnapping has made Kashmir increasingly touchy, analysts say.

``The wall of hatred between the government and the Sikhs may be starting to break down,'' says Inder Malhotra, a New Delhi political commentator. ``But Kashmir will hurt them. I'm sure the Congress [(I) Party of Rajiv Gandhi] will say, `See, and you thought you would solve all the problems with good will.'''

Since taking power last month, Singh has given top priority to resolving the two insurgencies and improving ties with neighbors, including Pakistan.

Singh has blamed the states' troubles on the former government of Mr. Gandhi, which often accused Pakistan of fomenting violence across the border.

In Punjab, Sikhs have nursed deep grievances against Mr. Gandhi and his family. His mother, the late Indira Gandhi, ordered the Indian Army into the Golden Temple to flush out extremists in 1984. Five months later, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering vicious anti-Sikh rioting across north India.

To bring healing, Singh has called a nonpartisan conference to seek a solution to the state's problems. Violence has ebbed in recent weeks as extremist-backed candidates won most of the parliamentary seats in the state.

Kashmir has long been a flashpoint in relations between India and Pakistan. A simmering Muslim militancy, launched by the pro-Pakistan Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and favoring secession from India, was ignited this year by spreading discontent over the state's faltering economy and official corruption. The kidnapping is fueling calls for replacing Kashmir's chief minister with central government rule.

Within India, the kidnapping has underscored Hindu concerns about Muslim militancy and could heighten tensions between the two communities, analysts say.

The incident also could stir new charges that Pakistan is aiding the Kashmir militants.

``Given the deteriorating situation in Kashmir and Hindu anxiety, this incident could mean trouble as the new government tries to better relations with Pakistan,'' says a Western diplomat.

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