India's Punjab quieter, but tensions deepen. Sikh-Hindu feelings of insecurity, distrust of police rise

The latest outbreak of Sikh-Hindu violence in India's northern state of Punjab has abated, but communal tensions continue to deepen. In interviews with local Sikhs and Hindus, it appears that the sense of insecurity among individuals is growing and that distrust of the local police is stronger. The state authorities appear unable or unwilling to deal effectively with the threat of rising extremism on both sides.

A series of Sikh terrorist attacks on Hindus last week plunged this sensitive state into its bloodiest crisis since the 1984 Army crackdown on violence in Punjab, called Operation Bluestar. Many residents fear further violence next week when hundreds of Hindu workers come in to help with the winter wheat harvest.

More than 80 people, mostly Hindu politicians and civilians, have died within the last month in Sikh extremist attacks. The chaotic state of affairs triggered speculation that ``presidential rule'' -- direct rule from New Delhi -- might be reimposed in Punjab. Such a move would mean the end of the state's elected moderate Sikh government, led by Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala.

But Mr. Barnala says the state has adopted a new approach to securing troubled areas by employing a larger police presence.

``We can restore peace and order in the state without calling in the Army,'' he said in an interview here. Last weekend, Barnala requested additional Central Reserve Police Forces, bringing to an estimated 25,000 the number of central forces augmenting the local police. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has expressed full support for Barnala's efforts to curb violence. The police reinforcements appear to have quelled the violence somewhat.

Many Punjab residents welcome other measures taken recently -- the appointment of a new police chief and Tuesday's appointment of new governor, Sidartha Shankar Ray, who is reputed to be tough on crime and violence.

But Chief Minister Barnala is increasingly being viewed as a weak leader who continues to avoid confrontation with Sikh extremists.

``Barnala is a sincere man who wants to help the disgruntled youth and eliminate the deep sense of grievance Sikhs have felt since Operation Bluestar,'' says a Sikh resident here. ``But he has no credibility left.''

Several residents of Chandigarh say that the situation in Punjab is worse today than before Operation Bluestar in 1984, when the Indian Army raided the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, to clear out Sikh extremists. Most of India's 13 million Sikhs, who constitute about 2 percent of the population, live in Punjab. Sikhs have agitated for greater political and religious autonomy and, in the past four years, extremists have stepped up a violent campaign to establish an independent state.

Even Barnala admits that he has inadequate control over Sikh extremists. ``There are elements,'' he says, without identifying them, ``who are keen on destabilizing everything.'' Some state government officials describe the situation as a virtual ``state of insurrection,'' where extremists want to assume control over the entire state.

The Indian government and Barnala claim that neighboring Pakistan trains and arms Sikh terrorists across the border. So far, no evidence has been released publicly and Pakistan denies these charges.

A more prevalent view is that support for the extremists is growing in the villages. Observers say there is a widening schism among Sikhs themselves. They point to a heightened polarization between the Sikh Jats, wealthy landowners who dominate Barnala's mainstream Akali Dal party, and the poorer non-Jats -- small landowners and agricultural laborers -- who are increasingly disillusioned with the moderates.

Events last week seemed to have wrenched hitherto peaceful Sikh and Hindu communities further apart. For the first time in its history, Ludhiana -- the industrial capital of Punjab -- was the scene of large-scale terrorist shootings. The killing of some 15 Hindus on March 28, left the atmosphere poisoned with fear and anger.

Ludhiana, a city of about 3 million, has an equal proportion of Sikhs and Hindus, with a smattering of Muslims, living together amid the crowded streets and bazaars. Today, half the city is under curfew, with police forces conspicuously posted on almost every block.

Residents of Ludhiana are greatly disturbed that the violence has spread to their city.``Before, Hindus and Sikhs lived side by side in Punjab. Now, Hindus cannot live securely anymore. And Sikhs fear a Hindu backlash. This has never happened before,'' one Sikh says.

Since 1983, militant Hindu organizations have become more active in Punjab. The Shiv Sena, one of the country's fundamentalist Hindu groups, has about 12,000 members in Ludhiana today -- twice the number it had last year. Local leader Pawan Sharma says the organization wants to eliminate the Sikh extremist threat by mobilizing and training Hindus in self-defense.

Avinash Rai, a Hindu businessman, says that several of his colleagues have moved out or plan to do so. Mr. Rai believes there are aggrieved Hindu youths who want to hit back but have no recourse to organization or weapons. ``They should be properly armed with sten-guns, just like the terrorists,'' he adds.

His father, Lajpat Rai, who is active in another Hindu militant group, says that ``all that can be done is for the government to try and identify the terrorists and deal with them firmly.'' Hindus should not retaliate, he says, because ``this will only aggravate the situation.''

But one Hindu resident of Ludhiana, whose uncle was killed in the recent violence, says there is a likelihood of Hindu retaliation. ``Once you feel the pinch, then you have to fight back. The government cannot save you. Only we can save ourselves.''

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