Credibility of India's Gandhi, moderate Sikhs is in jeopardy

The nearly year-old peace accord between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the moderate Sikh leadership of Punjab State is in serious jeopardy. The latest blow was the delay last Saturday -- for the second time this year -- in transferring to Punjab sole control of Chandigarh, the shared state capital. With each further delay, the position of Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala grows more precarious. Missing the third deadline, analysts say, would damage his and Mr. Gandhi's credibility.

Chandigarh, shared by Punjab and Hindu-dominated Haryana State, was scheduled for transfer June 21 in exchange for some Hindi-speaking territories. This is the first major provision of the peace accord signed last July, which aimed at addressing Sikh demands for greater power and autonomy and ending several years of Sikh extremist violence.

However, such violence, lately interspersed with Hindu retaliation, continues unabated in Punjab. The deferral may have deepened mistrust of Punjab's moderate leadership and of New Delhi. The transfer is slated for July 15, if a third government commission succeeds in specifying the areas -- a task left incomplete by two previous commissions.

But Mr. Barnala reportedly rejected the functions of the current commission on grounds that it aims ``at giving away large chunks of Punjabi-speaking areas to Haryana in disregard'' of the accord.

Gandhi has come under strong criticism. A critical editorial in The Times of India, a leading daily, read: ``[Gandhi] is not just back to square one. He is in a much worse plight than he was [even] before the accord last July. He is completely stuck for any kind of policy in Punjab.''

Some analysts hold the peace accord is not yet dead -- though they blame the government for letting itself become bogged down in legal technicalities and trying to undo them at the last minute.

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