India's Sikhs are bitter as Army tries to weed out 'militants'

Gurmeet Singh hardly looks a terrorist. He is tiny, and he is only nine years old. Yet he and 28 other children were held as risks to the country's security for four months in Indian Army cantonments, then in a Punjabi jail, before the Supreme Court intervened.

The four- to 12-year-olds, students at a Sikh school for religious studies in Himachal Pradesh State, arrived on May 31 at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, with their teacher, Ranbeer Kaur.

They were caught up in the Army's June 5-6 invasion of the temple aimed at clearing it of Sikh extremists encamped inside. They then became part of a nightmare that still haunts the Punjab - arrest without charge or warrant, then languishing in jail.

Finally freed on Sept. 21, Gurmeet and the other children, some seemingly in a state of shock, spoke of their interrogation by the Army and the civilian police. The children said they were repeatedly accused of being gun-feeders for the armed extremists who followed the late Sikh fundamentalist leader, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in the temple assault. They charged that they had been frequently beaten - charges that the Army and the government deny.

It has been four months since the Army moved into this sensitive border state , where it remains the highest authority. The Army's 7,000-man presence, combined with the condition of direct or ''President's'' rule from New Delhi - which was extended for another six months last week - means for all intents and purposes that the Punjab has been denuded of habeas corpus, legal, and human rights.

The Army moved out of the Golden Temple complex last week, and it has turned law-and-order duties in the Punjab back to a paramilitary force, except for three particularly sensitive districts - Amritsar, Gurdaspur, and Firozpur - where it continues ferreting out alleged Sikh extremists.

Roads, waterways, and rivers in some areas remain sealed or under patrol.

And languid autumn afternoons are still occasionally interrupted, particularly in the western districts, by the screeching sound of military trucks carrying groups of eight to 10 soldiers, dressed in battle gear and steel helmets, their sten guns cocked.

They continue to move into villages to conduct the second phase of Operation Bluestar - massive ''cordon and search'' operations.

The pattern in each village appears to be the same. The Army moves in during the early evening, cordons a village, and announces over loudspeakers that everyone must come out. All males between the ages of 15 and 35 are trussed and blindfolded, then taken away.

Thousands have disappeared in the Punjab since the Army operation began. The government has provided no lists of names; families don't know if sons and husbands are arrested, underground, or dead.

Punjab government officials have acknowledged that at least 6,000 people have been arrested in the last four months, and that some 2,500 are still being held. Lawyers claim that probably no more than 400 to 500 could be classified as Sant Bhindranwale's supporters, or ''hard core'' militants.

On the outskirts of the tiny village of Kaimbwala near Chandigarh, the Sikh priest, Sant Pritpal Singh, nervously fingered his tunic, recounting how his temple, the Guru Sagar Sahib, was raided and looted by the Army on the night of June 6. It was 7 in the evening, and he was conducting Rehraas Sahib prayers. His tiny, whitewashed gurdwara holds only 30 worshippers. That night, 13 were inside. Twenty Army trucks, mounted with machine guns and carrying 250 to 300 troops, sealed off the entire 11/2 kilometers surrounding the temple, Sant Pritpal said.

They blindfolded the worshippers and temple workers and pushed them with rifle butts to the narrow dirt road outside, where they were given electroshock charges with high-powered batteries attached to Army trucks.

All were interrogated on the whereabouts of any villagers who may have joined Sant Bhindranwale's militants.

The Sikhs of Kaimbwala are bitter today. So was every Sikh spoken to from the Punjab's relatively tranquil districts in the east and south.

For the 9.4 million Sikhs of the Punjab, the storming of the Golden Temple and the continuing Army presence here are considered a colossal betrayal.

As they bring in the rice harvest and begin sowing wheat, the Punjab's Jat farmers - 70 percent of them Sikh - say that they will sow 25 percent less acreage in wheat this year if the government does not increase the basic procurement price.

When the farmers' protest began early this year, their movement was strictly economic. Today, they are as angry as the Punjab's other Sikhs, and their rebellion could cost the government dearly. The Punjab provides 60 percent of India's critical stockpiles of rice and wheat.

The precarious state of this strategically important region seems symbolically clear from two signs posted next to the elevator on the sixth floor of the bustling Army operations center in the government secretariat here in the Punjabi capital.

One reads: ''This elevator is reserved for generals and ministers only.''

The other, on the opposite side of the elevator bank, says: ''Whosoever takes this elevator does so at his own risk!''

Inside the control room, smartly turned-out junior officers man 12 operational phones. Their confident, efficient demeanors belie the fact that the Sikh pride and psyche seem no longer able to withstand the constant reminder that largely non-Sikh Army units are policing their land.

Said one retired Sikh general, ''In the villages, the feeling against the Army is extremely strong, and this will be a real problem when the next war with Pakistan comes.

''For the first time in the history of India, villagers look at the Indian Army as an army of occupation, and these were the same villagers who, during 1971 and 1965, fed our units for several days, dug trenches, and provided civilian transport.''

''And, on the other hand,'' he asked rhetorically, ''how do you politicize an Army? You send it to the Punjab.''

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