Renewed violence tests Indian government. Ethnic strife threatens position of Gandhi-backed Sikh moderates

India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is grappling with a new wave of violence stemming from the country's four-year-old ethnic crisis. More than 30 Hindus have been killed by Sikh terrorists in the last two days, triggering protests across northern India and threatening the staying power of the moderate Sikh government in Punjab State. Sikhs, who make up about 2 percent of India's 780 million population, are in the majority in Punjab and some Sikh extremists advocate turning Punjab into a separate Sikh nation called Khalistan, (``land of the pure'').

Police in New Delhi have clashed in the past two days with hundreds of demonstrators outraged over Sunday's attack on Hindu bus passengers in Punjab. Twenty-four people (some reports say 22), singled out as Hindus, were killed by four Sikh gunmen who boarded the bus. At least another 10 have been killed in separate incidents.

Yesterday, right-wing Hindu opponents of Prime Minister Gandhi called a strike that brought New Delhi to a standstill. Shops were shuttered across the city, and buses - frequent targets in past riots - did not run. About 1,300 people were arrested for arson and looting.

Demonstrators, many of them Hindu migrants who have fled the violence in Punjab, threw stones, set vehicles on fire, and stopped traffic for several hours. Protests also were held in three states bordering Punjab.

In Punjab, authorities rounded up politicians and activists accused of supporting Sikh extremists. Among those arrested were Prakash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, two powerful opponents of the moderate Sikh government of Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala.

The arrests came a day after Mr. Gandhi faced harsh criticism from members of his own party over the handling of the Punjab crisis and pledged to take tough action against terrorists. The arrests were widely seen as a move to shore up the troubled Barnala government by quashing his political enemies.

However, Gandhi's critics say he has lost key opportunities to calm the trouble in Punjab. He has failed to implement portions of the pact signed last year with Sikh moderates. Stepped up security in the state has failed to stop terrorist attacks. Barnala is widely viewed as ineffective, staying in power only with the backing of the prime minister's Congress (I) Party.

``Barnala has tried to follow faithfully the central government's policies for some time in hopes that Gandhi would take some political initiatives,'' says Jagjit Singh Aurora, who heads an influential Sikh organization in New Delhi. ``I think he has waited in vain.''

Many consider the Punjab chief minister's position shakier than ever.

On Sunday, Mr. Tohra, a veteran Punjab politician, was elected to head the influential committee that runs Sikh temples and shrines and controls enormous amounts of donations. He defeated the incumbent, who was supported by Barnala.

Earlier this year, Tohra and Badal, a former chief minister, led a break-away revolt from Barnala's Akali Dal Party after police were ordered into the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh militants. It was the second such raid on Sikhdom's holiest shrine in two years.

In 1984, the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to drive out militants lead by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed in the attack. Five months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering widespread anti-Sikh rioting.

After his election Sunday, Tohra removed guards who had been stationed to keep militants out of Sikh shrines. The action raised fears that the temples would again become sanctuaries for terrorists.

``The Barnala government is an eyewash,'' says Janardan Thakur, a new Delhi political commentator. ``The center [central government] is in a spot. The problem is out of Barnala's hands.''

Despite calls from within his own party to deploy the Army in Punjab, Gandhi has decided to continue to prop up moderate Sikhs there.

So far, the central government has been able to mute Hindu outrage against the killings, thus preventing the widespread attacks on Sikhs that followed Mrs. Gandhi's assassination two years ago. Some analysts, however, question how long Gandhi will be able to keep the situation in check.

``What is to be feared,'' Mr. Thakur says, ``is that the Hindu backlash will spiral out of control.''

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