AIR-INDIA Flight 182, carrying 329 from Toronto to Bombay, simply disappeared from Irish radar screens monitoring the Atlantic on June 23, 1985. It had exploded in midair. Last June, New Delhi witnessed its worst violence in two years when gunmen separately opened fire at a children's birthday party and at late-night strollers; 12 were killed and 20 injured. Three weeks later, 72 Hindus were hauled off two rural buses and gunned to death.

The incidents, for which Sikh extremists were held responsible, reflect the most ominous side of religion in politics. As David Rapoport, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: ``The most striking development in terrorist movements in recent years is the reemergence of theological concepts.''

The relationship between religion and violence is not new. History is littered with holy wars and inquisitions. The words ``assassin,'' ``zealot,'' and ``thug'' derive from fanatic groups that thrived centuries ago within Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.

But violence inspired by or linked to religious movements, a constant in 1980s headlines, has historically been limited to regional issues and impact. Today, it has global impact.

A series of suicide bombings by Shiite Muslim extremists in Lebanon and Kuwait led to the erection of concrete barriers 8,000 miles away - around the White House. The United States, Canada, Britain, and West Germany have all witnessed protests by Sikh militants, who were also linked to an assassination plot against Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his 1985 visit to the US.

The emergence of Sikh militancy reflects three characteristics about the relationship between religion and violence:

Minorities, either within a nation or a religion, are more susceptible to mobilization because of perceived threats to their identity or survival. Sikhism, a monotheistic faith that grew out of Hinduism in the 16th century, constitutes only 2 percent of India's 800 million people. Sikhs have long feared absorption by the dominant Hindus.

Elsewhere, Lebanon's Maronite Christian minority has balked at giving up its edge in government - a key Muslim demand to end the 12-year civil war. Iran's Shia are a majority domestically, but represent only 10 percent of Islam, and the minority sense of persecution has been a dominant Shia theme for 13 centuries.

Increased religious militancy within one sect can heighten consciousness and militancy in others, creating a cycle difficult to break. Sikh and Muslim militancy in India has led to new Hindu activism, evident during cross-country marches in 1983 to ``save Hinduism.''

Sikh violence led to a 1984 Army raid on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated four months later by her Sikh bodyguards. That in turn triggered a Hindu massacre of 2,500 Sikhs.

Last May, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dissolved the moderate Sikh state government and imposed President's rule (federal rule), which was extended Monday for six months by Parliament. But over the past several months the killings, now a fact of daily life in Punjab, have already exceeded all those in 1986.

Elsewhere, Christian minorities in Egypt and Nigeria have become restive under pressure from Islamic majorities. The worst sectarian strife in Nigeria's post-independent history erupted last March. Sudan's 12-year peace was shattered when minority Christians and animists renewed the civil war after the 1983 imposition of Islamic law.

Goals centering on economic, ethnic, or political issues can evolve into nonnegotiable religious demands.

The Sikh issue became a major political factor in the 1960s with demands for a separate Punjabi-speaking province. Mrs. Gandhi, then new to the premiership, agreed, though mainly to win new allies for a clash with her Congress Party bosses. (Ironically, religious movements in the 1960s and early '70s were often cultivated by governments for their own purposes. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, who was killed by Muslim fanatics in 1981, had encouraged Islamic movements in the 1970s to counter leftist groups.)

But Mrs. Gandhi - and her son, who succeeded her - did not follow through on several subsequent pledges to moderates. After two decades of political disappointments, a five-man Sikh council last year proclaimed Punjab the independent state of Khalistan (``land of the pure''), and declared holy war on the government.

Militants belonging to such groups as the Khalistan Liberation Force are a tiny minority within a minority. Most Sikhs reportedly do not support secession, though they back less militant political demands.

But as the newsweekly India Today concluded: ``What started as a violent political agitation has now assumed the trappings of an insurgency that could rip to shreds the delicate weave that sustains the country's democracy and integrity.''

Despite its martial traditions, Sikhism, like all other major religions, promotes nonviolence and proscribes killing. The extremists' actions are now justified for a greater truth, rather than merely for social or political gain.

`BY identifying a temporal social struggle with the cosmic struggle of order and disorder, truth and evil, political actors are able to avail themselves of a way of thinking that justifies the use of violent means,'' explained Mark Juergensmeyer of the Department of Religion at the University of California, Berkeley. ``The pattern of religious violence of the Sikhs could be that of Irish Roman Catholics or Shiite Muslims or fundamentalist Christian bombers of abortion clinics in the US. There are a great many communities in which the language of cosmic struggle justifies acts of violence.''

Lasting reconciliation seems beyond immediate reach. Among Sikh militants, the individual's inner struggle with belief and the community's struggle to defend the faith have become inseparable from the greater conflict in the universe between order and chaos. The issues are no longer just of this world or this moment.

The Sikh case illustrates how the intensity of religious violence is more difficult to defuse than secular conflicts and that it is potentially a greater long-term threat than are secular ideological disputes.

Religious belief is so deep-rooted and so basic to life, especially in the troubled third world, that the sophisticated arsenal of an earthly power cannot ``defeat'' it by conventional means, if at all.

Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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