India's Sikh extremists scramble to recoup mainstream support. Sikh terror campaign seen as effort to provoke Hindu backlash
New Delhi — A series of bomb attacks this week, allegedly carried out by Sikh extremists, is seen as part of a strategy to instigate violence between Hindus and Sikhs in northern India. Senior police and security officials say that, by provoking retaliatory attacks against Sikhs, the terrorist groups hoped to regain some of the support they have lost in the villages of Punjab since their ignominious surrender to security forces at the Golden Temple shrine last month.
More than 60 people, most of them Hindu civilians, were killed and at least 100 injured in the bombings that took place Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The attacks - in crowded shopping centers, cinemas, and vegetable markets - could not have been more carefully designed to instigate a Hindu backlash.
In Amritsar, where two bombs on Tuesday killed 30 people near a Hindu temple, the terrorists nearly got the reaction they wanted. But a curfew prevented angry Hindu mobs from avenging the killings. Police yesterday raided the hideouts of suspected extremists tied to the bombing.
``We realize that the killings are intended to cause riots and we are taking all possible precautions,'' a senior official in the Home Ministry says. ``Police patrolling has been doubled in villages, and all main roads are being carefully watched.''
A new feature of the recent attacks has been their appearance in Hindu-dominated Haryana, the state adjoining Punjab, and in New Delhi, which also has a large Hindu population.
Haryana is highly symbolic of Hindu-Sikh differences. The state was carved out of the Punjab region 20 years ago, primarily because its Hindu population refused to accept Punjabi as the official state language. The two state governments are also at odds over ``sharing'' the same capital, Chandigarh.
Sikh militants, who say they are discriminated against by Hindus, have waged a campaign for autonomy and independence since the early 1980s. Followers of a religion formed 500 years ago as an alternative to Hinduism and Islam, Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's 800 million people, but are a majority in Punjab.
The extremists are believed to be on this current offensive because last month's battle with security forces at the Golden Temple in Amritsar resulted in their first serious defeat in years and a noticeable loss of support from Sikh masses.
The battle began when a couple of Sikh youths from inside the temple shot at a senior police officer who was trying to prevent them building a fortification on a public road. Security forces fired back, and a siege of the temple began. It ended only after more than 150 militants surrendered after 11 days.
Deputy Inspector-General of Police S.S. Virk, the officer whose shooting started the bat tle, told the Monitor via telephone from Amritsar that the general reaction to the surrender had been bad.
``People feel that either they [the Sikh militants] should have fought to the end or they should not have started the fight at all. The desecration of the temple has also caused a lot of anger.''
In a last ditch stand, 40 militants holed up in the temple for three days, even using it as a toilet. This has infuriated some Sikhs, to whom it is the holiest shrine.
In recent months, a number of Sikhs in villages have turned against the militants who have waged a campaign of extortion and blackmail, reportedly conducted from leaders inside the temple. The victims - mainly rich farmers - would be sent messages ordering them to deposit large sums of money (an average of $10,000) or face the consequences, almost certainly death.
Punjab government sources say all these factors have cost the militants a lot of support, and villagers are increasingly providing information about terrorist hideouts and movements.
The problem, however, is far from over. More than 1,200 people have been killed in terrorist violence since January - more than the deaths for all of last year.
One cause for optimism in the bleak scenario is the fact that Punjab's agricultural production appears to have been unaffected by the violence. Justifying its reputation as India's ``granary,'' Punjab contributed 42 percent of the country's total food reserves this year. The century's worst drought prevented other states from meeting much lower targets. But Punjab exceeded its target because of its well-developed irrigation system.