Mrs. Gandhi walks tightrope in India's violence-prone Punjab

The price for political mismanagement in the Indian state of Punjab could be decidedly high. Inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar - holiest of holy places for India's 15 million Sikhs - every second man carries an automatic weapon. Others of the proud and increasingly militant minority are armed with swords and ''kirpans,'' the small yet symbolic turban-knife.

''We are prepared to defend the temple, if the police enter its grounds,'' the fundamentalist Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale told the Indian Express in an interview last week. As he spoke, light machine gun emplacements were being surreptitiously mounted on the temple's limestone parapets. Twin flagpoles inside the complex symbolized the impossibility of separating religion from politics.

Assuming further powers to prevent the Punjabi violence from deteriorating into a large-scale communal clash, the Indian government dispatched an additional 2,000 special paramilitary security forces into the beleaguered northern state over the weekend. They arrived armed with orders to shoot on sight and to search and arrest without warrant, including inside places of worship. The authorization comes with Indira Gandhi's new emergency powers of ''president's rule,'' which she instituted late Thursday night.

However, according to a ranking adviser of the Indian prime minister, the Golden Temple will not be entered, although smaller Sikh and Hindu temples could be, to confiscate caches of increasingly sophisticated arms. Authorities claim arms have been stockpiled in the temples since the Sikh agitation began gathering new momentum some 14 months ago. The temples are also sanctuaries for a growing number of militants wanted by the law.

The government's actions in Punjab have been condemned by militant Sikh leaders, nearly all of whom had earlier welcomed the institution of president's rule. They, along with many impartial observers, had blamed much of the escalating violence on the ineffectiveness of the ruling state government of Mrs. Gandhi's Congress-I Party. Violence in the region has claimed at least 64 lives since mid-September.

If New Delhi succeeds in bringing the Punjab's terrorism under control, without further alienating Sikh sensibilities, it could well open the way for the resumption of a dialogue between the government and the Sikh's party leaders of the Akali Dal. The group's list of 45 religious and political demands are capped by an increasingly strident call for greater autonomy.

Yet, it is an extraordinarily fragile tightrope that Mrs. Gandhi now treads. This is the fourth time since she returned to power in 1980 that she has placed a state or union territory under central government rule, dissolving national assemblies, dispatching federal security forces, and, for all intents and purposes, eliminating any trappings of democracy.

Punjab is by far the most sensitive, however. India's most prosperous state, it is considered a strategic military area because of its shared border with Pakistan. And, according to a ranking aide to the prime minister, it has proved to be fertile ground for the reemergence of India's Naxalite terrorist organization, which spread mayhem throughout the northern states and territories two decades ago. The Naxalite movement was ruthlessly crushed by Indian security forces, forcing its handful of survivors deeply underground.

Western diplomatic officials treat the Naxalite reports with caution, remembering that India has always had a propensity to conjure up ''foreign involvement'' or threats of ''outside interference'' when dealing with volatile domestic affairs.

They acknowledge, however, that in the 1970s the Naxalite anarchists, who drew inspiration from China's Cultural Revolution, disappeared so deeply underground that Western intelligence sources have been extremely hard pressed to determine if they have regrouped in significant numbers or established a new base.

According to Mrs. Gandhi's adviser, ''a few hundred'' Naxalites are now in the Punjab, having joined in a ''paradoxical alliance'' with the extreme right-wing fundamentalists among the Akali's Sikhs.

The aide further alleged that they were receiving ''direct, individual'' assistance from neighboring Pakistan, including money, sophisticated weapons, and training, though he would give no details.

Today, security on the Indian-Pakistan border has been significantly reinforced. Paramilitary men from the border security forces patrol with heavier than usual weapons. And all the trains skirting the border have armed security guards, and all bus service in the Punjab comes to a halt after dark.

The killing of eight Hindus last Wednesday and Thursday by Sikh militants aboard a train and luxury bus is what prompted the central government in New Delhi to institute the presidential rule.

Thus far, no raids have been made on the temples in Amritsar. No arms have been recovered, nor have any of the militant leaders who have sought sanctuary inside the temples been placed under arrest.

A tension hangs over Amritsar, the state capital of Chandigarh, and the Punjab, as both Sikhs and Hindus wait for the next move.

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.