India's Punjab Braces for Election Congress party, extremist groups boycott controversial poll in key state

TWO years ago, militant Sikhs in India's northwestern Punjab State swept Simranjit Singh Mann to an election victory as their hero. This week, Mr. Mann is campaigning again - but amid tight security and fearing for his life against possible attacks by groups more radical than his.

"It's gone berserk lately," he acknowledges, referring to the upsurge in violence as the Indian government plans to go ahead tomorrow with parliamentary and legislative elections in this sensitve border state.

Many Sikh separatists who want an independent homeland are determined to stop the poll: To demonstrate their intent, they have stepped up what was already a steady campaign of terrorist attacks on civilian and government targets. But there are other groups - such as Mann's - who are fielding candidates.

India's major parliamentary party, the Congress (I), which won the most seats in last week's nation-wide election, is also boycotting the poll - but for different reasons. It claims that the caretaker government, headed by Prime Minister Chandra Sekhar, is catering to Sikh militants by holding elections. The action by Congress and one of India's two Communist parties underscores politicians' fears that a popular election will result in victory for a militantly pro-Sikh party in Punjab - and perhaps gran t

legitimacy to calls for independence.

Many ordinary Punjabis are wary of election-related violence.

"The common man would be happy to see the election cancelled and president's rule [central rule] continue," says W. S. Nanda, a Sikh university registrar in Patiala. "These ministers don't listen to the common man. They only listen to their own."

Even if the election goes ahead, its results are unlikely to restore stability any time soon.

While a majority of India's 15 million Sikhs live in Punjab, they constitute just about 50 percent of the state's population - the other half being mostly Hindu, with a Muslim minority. Still relatively prosperous, the region known as India's "bread basket" has seen an economic downturn since the early 1980s.

Population pressures, shrinking land holdings, and growing unemployment fueled resentment among better-educated Sikh youth. And then, Sikh moves for political and economic concessions - including constitutional recognition of Sikhism as a religion distinct from Hinduism and certain territorial claims - metamorphosed into an armed struggle for autonomy.

In June 1984, the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out separatists leading the armed campaign from the temple precincts. While the military objective was met, the raid on the Sikhs' most sacred shrine deeply wounded community sentiments and increased bitterness against then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Within months, she was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards to avenge the attack.

The political rise of her son, Rajiv Gandhi led to a peace accord between the government and some moderate Sikh factions in July 1985. But the agreement soon foundered, renewing the violence that still grips Punjab.

The central government called out the Army last week to help paramilitary forces already stretched thin by election violence elsewhere in India. But two days later, in an act of defiance alleged Sikh militants stopped two trains, separated out the Sikhs, and strafed the remaining Hindu passengers with gunfire. At least 75 people died.

Some militants have called for a strike today and tomorrow which may keep voter turnout low, political observers say. Other militants are participating in the election - even from behind bars.

For instance, in the city of Patiala, two of the most popular candidates are Karamjit Singh and Amarinder Singh. The former unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Mr. Gandhi in 1986; the latter hijacked an airplane to Pakistan. Both are in jail.

Among Sikhs, the election is proving divisive: The extremists, who control different geographical areas, are fragmented. So is the Akali Dal, the main Sikh party. The divisions, and Congress's absence, could lead to a strong showing for the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which is appealing to urban Hindus. Sikh leaders who call on New Delhi to address their grievances admit they are being hurt.

"These divisions are not good. We need unity," says Prakash Singh Badal, a possible contender for chief minister. "Whoever comes to power has all these problems to tackle."

In Lang, a dusty village of small brick huts, the problems take on a human dimension. Sadhu Singh Lang sits under an awning and welcomed mourners to a memorial service for his brother Baldev, a modest farmer and state assembly candidate who was murdered earlier this month.

In the nearby house, grieving women wail. "Where have you gone, my dear? Why are you leaving your children behind?"

"My brother was respected.... This is a fight among the groups," says Mr. Lang, who also lost a nephew in such infighting. "This is the misfortune of Sikhism, that we are killing each other."

The extremists and candidates refuse to discuss the killings and blame the government. "Government agents are behind this; they are attacking just to defame Sikhs," charges Navinder Singh of the All-India Sikh Students Federation, a major militant group which is contesting the election. "We have nothing to do with killing innocent people."

Mann, who is speaking at the memorial service, admits in an interview, "There is some political immaturity among the militants." He has campaigned on the call for an independent Sikh state, saying government atrocities and human rights abuses are severing Punjab from India. But the appeal, aimed at placating separatists, has so far been unsuccessful.

So, at the service, he tells villagers, "getting freedom by gun and election are both justified."

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