India's Sikhs defy authority in fight for political, religious identity

Everywhere, there is a sense of waiting. Housewives queue up silently outside food stalls. Merchants, some of whose shops are now shuttered, have begun hiding their stock.

Thousands of turbaned Sikhs mill about the Golden Temple, holiest of shrines for this sect which mixes elements of Hinduism and Islam. The words of the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth, waft across the temple complex, sung hauntingly by a blind man.

Here in Amritsar, the holiest of holy cities for India's 15 million Sikhs, one is gripped by the foreboding presence of a city under seige.

Since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Punjab a ''disturbed area'' on Oct. 6 - abolishing the state government and instituting ''president's rule'' - 3,000 security reinforcements have arrived in this northern state. They have swept through four districts, arresting nearly 1,500 ''extremists'' thus far, in the wake of escalating Sikh-Hindu violence which has cost over 200 lives.

But they have not yet made a move in Amritsar, headquarters of the growingly militant Sikhs. They are here, however, staging a show of force: one is reminded of their presence 24 hours a day.

The Guru Nanak Niwas, a guest house for pilgrims inside the Golden Temple complex, houses at least 100 wanted men, whom the police have charged with murder, armed robbery, or other violent acts. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Punjab's most powerful religious leader, is among them. He is not coming out.

''Let them come in and get me,'' he said. ''Come in, that is, if they dare.''

On the roof of the six-story building, its blue walls flaking paint, machine-gun emplacements hug the limestone parapets. The Nihang Singh warriors, the temple's praetorian guard, wear traditional blue tunics and turbans, as they have worn them for centuries. But now they carry automatic weapons, .45-caliber pistols, carbines, and metal spears.

Below, the Indian security forces are behind sandbags. And, from the Darbar Sahib bazaar, rising above the sea of color - turbans of saffron, bright blue, and gold - are the ominous butts of rifles, as the security forces patrol the area.

A child rushes across a rooftop, carrying what looks like a toy pistol - but it isn't. He puts it down, and goes off to a corner to join other children, as Sant Bhindranwale addresses a crowd.

The children play a game like hop-scotch. Women hang laundry from the balconies below. A 26-inch television set is carried up the stairs. A vegetable stall owner arrives with a basket of apples, balanced on his head. They are in an armed fortress, but life continues to go on.

Beyond the temple is the Great Punjabi plain, the breadbasket of India, a buffer against the kind of famine that gripped this country 20 years ago. The last of the winter wheat harvest is now coming in. Hundreds of burlap bags for market are lined up along the road.

The Punjab produces 12 million tons, or 60 percent, of India's grain. It is an indispensible part of India - food, geo-political importance, the gateway to Pakistan. With a per capita income one-third higher than the national average, Punjab is India's most prosperous land.

Yet, economic well-being alone has not satisfied a growing number of Punjabi Sikhs. They are the majority population of this state - 8.2 million Sikhs to five million Hindus. They fear their religious traditions are being eroded and are demanding a distinct political identity.

Inside the Golden Temple, two saffron flags, side-by-side, are united with wooden rods, forming a cross. In the 500-year-old history of Sikhism, religion and politics have been one.

The Sikh morcham, or agitation, now into its 15th month, began as a Mahatma Gandhi-like protest, the peaceful courting of arrest. Since its inception, 170, 000 volunteers have flooded Punjab's jails.

They continue to gather in the congregation hall of the Golden Temple, some 50 to 100 a day. Then, in almost ritualistic fashion, accompanied by martial music, they march to the police station of Amritsar. Buses take them to jail.

Today, there are 75 courting arrest, including 15 women, two of whom are in their seventies.

Why do they willingly go to jail? ''So that the Sikhs can be free,'' one answers matter-of-factly. She comes from the village of Babbar, and is a widow. Both her daughter and grandson are also ''courting'' today.

In the beginning, the volunteers were jailed for 15 to 30 days. But the Jails became so overcrowded that police began holding them only overnight. But, when the same people reappeared for arrest the following day, it was decided that 4 to 6 days in prison was a good average, to keep them at home. Yet, over a year later, they continue to come.

Women carry their belongings in plastic bags and satchels. Some of the more prosperous men carry an attache' case. They have blankets and newspapers, pillows and books. Women sometimes carry their babies. A trolley of food from the temple accompanies them.

But everyone wears a saffron turban, a saffron headscarf, or bow. They wear garlands of saffron flowers - and carry the saffron Sikh flag.

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