US Sikhs split by loyalty to religion, to India

It was the envelope that troubled Bhagwant Kaur Sidhu. Inside was a letter she had written to relatives in India. But she didn't want to write ''India'' on the envelope. In her mind, the Indian government had done too much against her people and her religion.

''It is a feeling of hurt,'' says Mrs. Sidhu, a Sikh who now lives in suburban Chicago. Reluctantly, she addressed her letter ''India.''

Sikhs around the world are increasingly concerned about events in India. Many are calling for greater Sikh autonomy, observers say.

Matters were not helped by the recent assassination of Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, by two Sikh bodyguards. In India, thousands of Sikhs were attacked by angry mobs of Hindus seeking revenge. Many Sikhs abroad condemned the assassination but were shocked by this rioting. Suddenly the idea of ''Khalistan'' - the separate Sikh nation envisioned first by some extremists - is being talked about.

Not all Sikhs support the concept. ''I don't see Khalistan as a viable step, '' says Bruce La Brack, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Pacific. He says Sikh moderates will eventually see the importance of continued Sikh-Hindu ties. ''This is a family that's had a terrible fight, but it's still a family.''

But many Sikhs seem to be moving closer to the separatists' view.

''Like me, moderate Sikhs never supported 'Khalistan,''' says Pavitar Singh, a physician in Aurora, Ill. ''Now I have been pushed to the extreme.''

This is a dramatic shift for Sikhs outside of India, who until recently paid little attention to the separatists, observers say. The change was sparked in early June, when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, to flush out armed Sikh militants whom it said were running a terrorist operation from the temple. In the process, hundreds of Sikhs were killed.

Suddenly in Sikh communities in the US, Canada, and Britain, the slain Sikh leader - Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - became a martyr. (His color poster now hangs in the temple of the Sikh Religious Society here in Palatine, Ill.) And the separatist movement gained credibility here.

''They were not asking about a separate state before the Golden Temple attack ,'' says Mohindar Singh, a priest at the Sikh temple in Palatine.

Now, he says, 95 percent of the congregation supports some form of greater Sikh autonomy.

''After the sixth of June, this became the demand of all the Sikhs,'' says J.S. Bhullar, secretary-general of the newly formed World Sikh Organization, which is raising money to open offices in Sikh communities around the world, including Canada, Britain, Singapore, and the United States.

Hindus and Sikhs ''are like brothers and sisters,'' says Amarjit Singh Sidhu, a Sikh architect here, who attended college in India with Hindus. But ''it raises the question in your mind that maybe these guys don't want you anymore.''

These reactions - in Sikh communities outside of India - are extremely important, says Professor La Brack. In the past, successful Sikh immigrants have funneled huge amounts of money back to relatives in the country. The World Sikh Organization has raised approximately $2 million to peacefully promote Sikh separatism, Mr. Bhullar says. At the temple in Palatine, about $60,000 has been raised for the families of Sikh victims in India. Individual donations have been substantial. Dr. Singh of Aurora has enrolled some 25 members in a Sikh professional group he is forming. Annual dues: $2,000.

Whether this type of support will continue is another question, observers say.

''It's not a deep or strong support,'' says Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of religious studies at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley. Much depends on what the Indian government does. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi's son, has offered financial compensation to Sikh families hurt by the rioting.

Some Sikhs already echo the hope for a peaceful solution. ''I still feel there's time to correct it,'' says Amrik S. Chattha, president of the Sikh Council of North America. ''We have lived together for centuries. Why can't we do it today?''

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