Visit to Sikhdom's damaged symbol

Two weeks after the guns fell silent, Amritsar's Golden Temple is basked in an eerie calm. The only sound - that of Indian soldiers mixing plaster and filling in bullet holes. The haunting strains of gurbani prayers waft from the magnificient Sikh temple itself, one of only a handful of buildings in the 72-acre complex bearing no scars of war.

Red-and-white flags flutter in the pre-monsoon breeze. They mark the bunkers, machine-gun emplacements, and fortifications of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's men, who battled the Indian Army in a four-day seige which may have left 1,000 Sikh militants and Army men dead.

When I asked Lt. Gen. K. Sundarji, the officer in charge of India's western command, if he had anticipated such resistance from inside the temple, or if there had been a failure on the part of the civilian intelligence services, he replied, ''I had expected stiff resistance, but not this stiff. A failure of intelligence? The short answer is yes.''

There was by no means unanimity among India's senior officers on the government's controversial decision to use defense forces in the temple assault.

And, with military control of the Punjab now into its third week, there is a sense of growing apprehension that this same army could become an army of occupation - with the military, not the government, becoming the focus of resentment for India's 15 million Sikhs - and that terrorism could be rekindled.

It was apparent during a military briefing that the three generals responsible for ''Operation Blue Star'' were eager to leave the Punjab, but were operating under a number of political constraints - as they have been since June 4 when they first set up a military cordon around Sikhdom's holiest shrine.

On at least four occassions, Maj. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar, who commanded the operations inside the temple complex, said that he was under strictest orders not to fire on, or toward, the 181-year-old Golden Temple. And he could not have the heavy armor and artillery needed to protect his men.

Outside the once magnificient Akal Takht building - the temple's second most sacred shrine, home to the Sikhs' bible, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the seat of Sikh temporal power - a bulldozer carried the rubble away.

It was here that Sant Bhindranwale, the fundamentalist Sikh leader, had set up his basement command.

Much of the building, though its walls are still technically standing, is now rubble. Its golden dome is punctured by a huge, gaping hole.

Twenty of Sant Bhindranwale's machine-gun emplacements had ringed the sacred shrine, and the battle for the Akal Takht continued for nearly 24 hours.

Just across the temple complex, the Army claims to have discovered a grenade factory and, a bit further east, a factory where, under the instructions of a retired Army major general, crude but effective guns had been made.

How long will the Army remain in the Punjab, ferreting out the remaining extremists?

Lt. General Ranjit Singh Dayal responded, ''We hope in some weeks time we'll return to the barracks.

''We never said we'll be here for long. We ourselves don't want to be here for long.''

However, his commanding officer, General Sundarji, said that it was a ''difficult question.'' He hoped that ''soon'' they would leave.

(The Indian government announced Tuesday that most of its Army contingent is pulling out of the Golden Temple Wednesday and returning control to religious authorities, UPI reports.)

Six of India's 31 Army divisions are permanently deployed in the Punjab, facing Pakistan. The state has been a key arena in Indo-Pakistani wars. India's most important military air base is in the Punjabi capital of Chandigarh.

''They will be very judicious and cautious in these mop-up operations,'' one Western defense attache said. ''The Army under no circumstances wants to antagonize the Punjabis, if they have to return in the future to fight a war with Pakistan.''

What the Punjabis themselves think, we could not ask. Our tour of the Golden Temple was a highly-controlled government affair, and only at the temple - still off-limits to pilgrims - and at Army headquarters, were we permitted to leave the bus.

Army generals echoed the government stand that Sikh militants were armed, funded, and trained by Pakistan. Pakistan denies any involvement.

There is little doubt among most observers that Sant Bhindranwale used the vast bands of smugglers who roam the Indo-Pakistani border as both conduits and suppliers for some of his most sophisticated arms.

Foreign diplomatic officials, increasingly impervious to charges and countercharges emanating from either side of the Indo-Pakistani frontier, are thus treating quite judiciously the Indian government position that Pakistan was involved with Sant Bhindranwale's men.

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