India's proud Sikhs struggle to come to terms with Army siege on Golden Temple. Many say Mrs. Gandhi has made militant Bhindranwale the martyr he wanted to be
India's 15 million Sikhs, one of the country's wealthiest and most enterprising minority communities, face a dilemma of exactly how to react to the June 6 Army attack on their Golden Temple.
Fiercely proud, imbued with tradition, a martial and privileged class, the Sikhs are clearly outraged and embittered by the assault. And Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in what was undoutedly the greatest political gamble in her 151/2 years as premier, appears to have played straight into the hands of militant Sikhism, across the length and breadth of this disparate land.
Many say she has even made Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - a militant Sikh leader who was largely responsible for creating the crisis that led to the attack on the Golden Temple - a martyr, as he always wanted to be.
Some say Mrs. Gandhi has legitimized the extremists' cause in the eyes of millions of Sikhs who only three weeks ago regarded the barefoot Bhindranwale as a simple, rural preacher with a deepening desire for megalomania, craving the idolatry of a saint.
Mrs. Gandhi has thus placed the moderates in the Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, in an untenable position - along with placing many of them all under military arrest.
In the past, in any negotiations with the government for greater religious and political autonomy, the Akalis had to carry Sant Bhindranwale and his extremists with them.
Now they may have to carry the entire Sikh community, for the price being asked to sit down and negotiate is that of Sikh honour and pride.
But in the eyes of many, any Sikh negotiations with the government are very far away.
In terms of votes cast in elections, the Sikhs may not be that vital for Mrs. Gandhi; they are but 2 percent of India's population of nearly 700 million.
But the Sikhs have influence far beyond their numbers, holding top posts in almost every profession.
In the days of the British Empire, when they stood by their colonial masters in the ''great mutiny'' of 1857-58, the Sikhs were guaranteed a place in the elitist civil and military service - a position which they continue to retain today, though in smaller numbers.
Sikhs comprise 11 percent of the country's 960,000-man Army. They are descendants of the 19th-century British ''martial class'' that accounted for one-third of the Indian Army fighting on the Western front in World War I.
The Sikhs have fought against the Afghans and Muslims, on the side of the British Army, and against the Pathans.
A proud and martial race, the Sikhs' politics and faith are often fused. The paintings of Sikhs in the Golden Temple's portrait gallery are a testament to the ferocity with which these people have invaded or withstood invasions. Many of the portraits are splashed with blood-red oils - ''a reminder,'' according to artist Kirpal Singh, who himself always carried an ax inside his draped black garments.
Yet farming remains the Sikhs' main livelihood: 80 percent of them live off the soil. They are 52 percent of the population in the Punjab, where, along with the Hindus, they now live under military control.
It was the Sikhs who helped spawned the ''green revolution'' in agriculture - the single most stunning accomplishment of India's independent years.
Without the Sikh farmers in the Punjab, Indians would literally starve. There is no better land, nor richer harvest in the country, than that of the Punjab's 50,000 square kilometers of land.
The state's 9.3 million farmers, 70 percent of them Sikh, produce 60 percent of the government's critical stockpiles of food.
The Sikhs are everywhere with their bright, striking turbans and long flowing beards. They drive trucks and taxis from southernmost Kanyakumari to northernmost Kashmir. They succeed in many professions. Large numbers are academicians, lawyers, doctors, and civil servants.
There are no official figures on their numbers in India's still prestigious civil service and diplomatic corps, but they are in some front-line positions in India's most critical embassies abroad.
''Ask a Sikh,'' wrote Khushwant Singh, the author and Sikh historian, ''how many of them there are in the world, and he may well reply 1.5 billion. This is a vast but understandable exaggeration, as every Sikh looks upon himself as sava lakh (equal to 125,000 other people) . . . and, he is committed to the ideal that anything anyone else can do, a Sikh can do better.''
Thus Mrs. Gandhi was reported to have been considerably shaken when she was briefed on the occurrence of eight Sikh mutinies by some 2,000 soldiers in the Indian Army last week.
Steeped in discipline and tradition, wedded to strict noninvolvement in the country's political affairs, the Army, with its elite Sikh divisions is the pride of India and the symbol of the nation's unity.