Violence in Punjab raises concerns about finding lasting peace

The resurgence of violence in Punjab, India's strategic northern state, is reinforcing fears that peace in this troubled Sikh stronghold is still tenuous. Despite the election victory in late September of the mainstream Sikh Akali Dal party, maintaining order in Punjab has become an increasingly formidable problem for the new government, headed by Akali leader Surjit Singh Barnala. Several Sikhs and Hindus have been killed in a series of violent incidents since the Sept. 25 elections, which were held after nearly five years of violence and turmoil over Sikh demands for autonomy. The majority of India's 13 million Sikhs live in Punjab. On Monday, a bomb, believed to have been planted by Sikh extremists went off in the largely Hindu town of Khanna, killing one person and injuring three. In another incident, a Hindu doctor was assassinated a day earlier.

One of the obstacles the Punjab State government faces, some Indian analysts say, is dissatisfaction with the July peace accord between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal. Sikh extremists opposed to the accord assassinated Mr. Longowal in August.

Last month an attempt was made on the life of the head priest of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab's religious capital. The priest, Giani Sahib Singh, was said to have openly supported the Gandhi-Longowal accord.

Another difficulty is the delicate balancing act the government must perform between firmness and sympathy in dealing with Sikh extremists who seek a separate state they call Khalistan.

``[Chief Minister] Barnala is in a very tight spot. He is genuinely interested in eliminating terrorism but if he tries to put them down by force, he may not be successful,'' Sikh businessman Manmohan Singh says.

Analysts believe a lot of bitterness also remains over the Army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, ordered by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the anti-Sikh rioting that followed her assassination in October 1984. ``I don't believe that the Sikhs will ever forget the violence done to them and their religion,'' a prominent Sikh businessman says.

Recent moves by Mr. Barnala show that he is under pressure, both from terrorist threats and the strong communal undercurrent within his party, to pursue policies of appeasement. He has announced a ban on police entry into temples and released several hundred detainees jailed on charges related to earlier violence. But sources say the police are making arrests related to the more recent incidents of violence.

Clearly Barnala believes that a conciliatory approach toward extremists is more effective than a tough stance.

At the same time, terrorist acts which embarrass the state government appear to be creating strong ripples of disapproval even among sympathetic Sikhs, sources say.

Barnala has proved himself able to rally support among the Akali Dal rank and file, and earlier this month consolidated his shaky position as party president. But the Sikh community remains fragmented and militants have not let up on their demands for autnomy. The government inherited empty coffers, which can stall economic plans. And there is still concern over the Gandhi-Longowal accord. One of its provisions requires awarding to Punjab the city of Chandigarh which it shares with nei ghboring Haryana. In return, Haryana demands more areas than Punjab's Sikhs are willing to give up. Another provision to build a canal in Punjab to irrigate lands in Haryana is virulently opposed by Punjab farmers.

``These have put a bit of doubt in people's minds about the accord. And those who may not be convinced that the central government is sincere would probably like to keep the fire smoldering,'' says one analyst.

Many believe that until these problems are resolved, peace in Punjab will continue to be elusive.

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