Why India's Militant Sikhs Keep Fighting

Frame 1: It is the height of the harvest season in Punjab, the most productive agricultural state in India, heartland of the green revolution that has made India self-sufficient in food. Thousands of purbeas, seasonal laborers from the east of India, stream in by bus and train to harvest the crop. A group of young men in turbans enters the laborers' camp and begins shooting with automatic rifles. In the wake of death and destruction, thousands of purbeas flee home in terror. Frame 2: Four young men enter the brilliantly colored tent that has been erected for a wedding reception in a small town in Punjab. They inspect the tables laden with food. There are no signs of wine or liquor. No cigarettes. A vegetarian menu. They are satisfied. The bride's father breathes a sigh of relief as the uninvited guests depart.

THE young men are Sikhs, the religious community that dominates Punjab. They are part of the small but insistent fraction of Sikhs who believe their religion can find proper expression only in a separate state, Khalistan. Since 1980, the secessionists have emerged as one of those intense extremist movements, like the IRA, that subvert the energies of a large sovereign state while violently disrupting the lives of their own community.

The Sikhs are fighting for a separate state in which it would be possible to control the impurities and corrupt accretions that they see as the consequence of assimilation to Hinduism on the one hand and to sensate modern culture on the other. Their uninvited attendance at the wedding is an attempt to enforce puritanical norms on those Sikhs whose observances are more casual. The shooting of the purbeas is meant to demonstrate that agriculture-as-usual has to reckon with the more urgent goal of religious self-realization, and to drive out competing labor.

The visit to the wedding suggests the issue is not so much one of an oppressed minority seeking religious tolerance as of devout believers who see tolerance itself as a threat to religion. Tolerance allows wrong practices. Religion must have a setting in which people of true faith not only support one another but in which right religious practices are enforced by community opinion. It must be sheltered against an environment in which the faithful are tempted, for purposes of getting along, to dilute their observances.

Khalistan is a political objective, but it is also the expression of Sikh fear of assimilation by the infinitely larger Hindu community. Even if the great majority of Sikhs seem indifferent to Khalistan and have a more casual attitude toward observance, they are nevertheless touched by the appeal that cherished norms and life-ways are endangered.

When they are not touched, they are frightened by the swift-moving and remorseless young men on motor scooters who punish the moderates and conciliators in their own community as often as they kill the Hindus they want to chase out of Punjab. All this occurs in a state where, even before the present conflict, carrying weapons was common and the murder rate was one of the highest in India.

Sikhism is a devotional religion, akin to other faiths that became prominent in India after the 16th century. It is egalitarian, and critical of the inequalities and ritualism of classical Brahmanic Hinduism. It had and has a pacifistic variant that emphasizes the inwardness of the relationship to God, the Sikhism of Guru Nanak. It has a militant expression, prominent since the 17th century, that conceives of Sikhism as a martial community prepared to defend itself, the Sikhism of Guru Gobind Singh. It has cherished traditions of martyrdom that recall the death of Sikh gurus in conflict with the Mogul empire.

SIKH traditions of martyrdom lend themselves to comparison with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's attack on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, in 1984. To the government of India, it seemed that it was ousting terrorists who were using a holy shrine to shelter their weapons and cadres. For many Sikhs, it was a fearsome violation of sacred space. For some, Sant Bhrindenwale, the leader of Sikh extremists who died in that attack, is only the latest martyr in the story of Sikh suppression. So are the 3,000 or more Sikhs who died in Delhi in retaliatory massacres after Indira Gandhi was slain in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. Those who perpetrated the Delhi massacres have never been prosecuted, and some of the accused serve in highest public office.

The Congress party of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi is both agent of the Punjab crisis and its victim. Many in India believe that if Indira Gandhi in 1980 had been willing to share power in Punjab with the moderate Sikhs of the Akali Dal party, forming a coalition government of the sort that had ruled peacefully between 1977 and 1980, the present situation would not have arisen. Instead, Indira Gandhi and former President Zail Singh, then leader of the Congress party in Punjab, excluded the Akali Dal from power. To do so, they used the fundamentalist wing of the Sikhs to help build a Congress party victory in Punjab. They played the religious card successfully. But it returned to haunt them. The fundamentalist collaborators of 1980, strengthened by that collaboration, became the terrorists of 1983-84.

Why have Punjabi Sikhs come to see themselves not only as an endangered species on religious grounds, but as a downwardly mobile community? A smarting issue has been the reduction of Sikhs in the armed forces. Under the British raj, Sikhs were considered a martial race, good fighters, and were favored in Army recruitment. They constituted 17 to 20 percent of the armed forces, greater than their 2 percent proportion of the population. The new policy smarts because Sikhs thought of themselves as patriotic defenders of India. They believed they had earned much credit in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. The reduction in numbers looked like a deliberate attempt to cut down to size what had been an honored minority. It also deprived young rural Sikhs of a valued career opportunity.

The Sikh issue has become seriously entangled in the conflict with Pakistan. Sikhs cross the border to worship in West Punjab, the portion of the state that went to Pakistan at partition in 1947. Pakistan is believed by India to provide weapons to the border crossers, to encourage or close its eyes to the drug traffic that finances the secessionists, and to fuel the fires of Sikh terror. The Indian government has been hesitant to build major industries in an area so vulnerable to attack by the most likely opponent in war. To Sikhs, this lack of investment looks like a deliberate attempt to keep Punjab an agricultural state.

TODAY, the Punjab state government is suspended, and the state is governed by president's rule, a constitutional device by which the federal government can take over a state when law and order fail. The opposition says the takeover was unnecessary, and ended the last opportunities to rebuild a civil politics in the Punjab. The killings continue, monotonously.

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