India's militant Sikhs test the nation's unity

For anyone who has read Kipling, the Sikhs of India symbolize a warrior class , bathed in history, pomp, and circumstance. But, for the past 10 days, a different kind of Sikh warrior has taken to the streets, drawing sword and saber in a call for virtual autonomy.

Led by militant fundamentalists of the Sikhs' political party, Akali Dal, they have combined civil disobedience with violent attack, to present Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government with one of its potentially most explosive crises since 1975, when the prime minister assumed extraordinary powers under a controversial ''emergency act.''

The Sikhs are a religious group founded in the 15th century, whose monotheism combines elements of Hinduism and Islam with unusual customs and a martial spirit. As British loyalists in the suppression of the Indian mutiny of 1857, they were rewarded with land grants and other privileges during India's colonial period. Periodically since India's independence in 1947, the Sikhs have pressed claims for greater recognition and autonomy.

Since launching their newest round of demonstrations in August, 26,000 Sikhs have been arrested and 106 have died, according to Akali leader Prakash Singh Badal. Four were killed in New Delhi Oct. 18 while attempting to storm the parliament building, Lok Sabah. And, as the government reacted to the escalating violence, an order to shoot all demonstrators on sight was issued Tuesday in the Sikh's holy city of Amritsar. It is in Amritsar, with its golden temple, that militants are demanding government recognition of a Sikh capital for an enlarged and autonomous Sikh Punjab.

According to diplomatic observers, the battle lines are drawn. Both sides appear to be hardening their positions and, within the fractious Akali Dal, radical elements are clearly gaining control.

The multifaceted Akali Dal is believed to have the support of the majority of India's 10.4 million Sikhs, although less than 1 percent champions the radical position of full autonomy.

''It is indeed a serious development,'' said Sikh authority Dr. Khushwant Singh. ''The violence marks a significant break between the Sikh and Hindu communities, which traditionally have been very close. We are also seeing a wave of religious revivalism which could have dangerous portents; and legitimate Punjab grievances are giving way to ridiculous demands.''

Embittered at what they perceive as government indifference, if not hostility , to their demands, Akali leaders have refused to heed a government call for negotiations until Mrs. Gandhi accepts the party's Anandpur resolution of 1973. Among other things, the resolution called for redefining the boundaries of the three adjoining Indian states and giving the Sikhs autonomous powers in an enlarged Punjab region, powers now enjoyed only by Kashmir.

According to the Anandpur resolution, Punjabi-speaking areas of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh, all bordering states, would be incorporated into the Punjab, making it one-third larger than it is today.

The resolution also demands a rewriting of the Indian Constitution to grant Sikhs control of their own affairs, excluding defense, transport, currency, and foreign affairs.

Thus, a moderate, nonviolent movement, which has traditionally lobbied for preferential prices, industrial projects, and water rights, has been galvanized into a cycle of violence.

The government knows the stakes are high.

Although they make up only 2 percent of India's population, the Sikhs claim 85 percent of their population lives in India's northwest Punjab, hugging the Pakistani frontier. Not only is the region strategically important, but it is also the nation's agricultural heartland. Granting autonomous powers, however limited they might be, would open a Pandora's box in other restive provinces, threatening the very unity of the diverse Indian state.

Warning the Sikhs that ''chauvinism'' is against their own interests, the community's highest ranking member, Indian President Zail Singh, has refused to sanction the demands of the Akalis. Other prominent members of the upper-class Sikh community in Delhi are also distancing themselves from the radical fringe, but they fear they are not immune to the consequences of the Akali's demands.

The Sikhs are the most prosperous of India's minorities and have long been noted for their upward mobility. They account for 10 percent of the country's defense forces and control the Punjab's richest farming land. They have greater representation in government service than is warranted by their numbers.

''We are,'' said a retired Sikh general, ''part and parcel of the Indian state. An autonomous Punjab? Nonsensical, I say. How can one achieve upward mobility, recognition in such a limited area of land? We as Sikhs have prospered because we are part of that magnificent landscape that is India today.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.