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The Punjab: a turning point for India and Mrs. Gandhi

Twenty-one days after the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, there are still many unanswered questions. It is not clear what the implications of the assault will be - for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Punjab, or the country as a whole.

It has been 25 days since the Punjab was clamped under curfew, with journalists and foreigners banned. Since then, the government has issued a bewildering welter of statements, with one ministry contradicting the next.

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There have been charges of ''foreign involvement.'' Yet no evidence has been produced to substantiate the ''foreign hand - or hands'' that had allegedly guided Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and some 2,000 Sikh extremists controlling the temple's grounds in their ''anti-national warfare.'' The militants, the government said, wanted to establish the visionary Sikh nation of ''Khalistan.''

Only when independent observers are permitted into the Punjab to establish what really happened during the first week of June will the full implications for Mrs. Gandhi and her government - in a critical election year - become apparent.

The astonishing Army action inside the Golden Temple caught nearly all of India unaware.

No one believed that Mrs. Gandhi would really direct the Army to storm the temple. The unpredictableIndian premier has again defied conventional wisdom by making no political initiative toward the country's 15 million embittered Sikhs, even though she is under pressure from many, including the country's Sikh President, Zail Singh, to do so. On Saturday, however, she did visit the Golden Temple, a sacred, walled-in complex now bruised and scarred from a battle that is believed to have cost nearly 1,000 lives.

Whether one speaks to a ranking government official, an opposition politician , an intellectual, or a foreign diplomat, there is a common consensus that the Army assault will be a turning point in both the turbulent history of India and the equally turbulent career of its prime minister. There is broad-based agreement that it has increased the nonsecularization of a vast, heterogeneous, and secular state. Experts also agree that the siege has shaken the very foundations of the Indian Army, long the preemminent example of Indian pride and unity.

Above and beyond the obvious implications of eight mutinies by Sikh soldiers and a senior officer corps divided over the Army's assault, details have begun to emerge from official sources on the extensive involvement of former Army officers in Sant Bhindranwale's command. Seventeen retired officers above the rank of colonel are said to have played a role in fortifying the temple complex, training Sant Bhindranwale's forces, or providing the extremists with arms.

The Army remains in control of the still beleaguered state. Government officials have emphasized that it will remain in Amritsar for at least two months, perhaps even longer, provoking worrisome questions among military men themselves on whether Punjab could become yet another Northern Ireland.

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In the past two years, the turmoil in the Punjab has become one of the most, if not the most, serious crises that India has faced in its 37 independent years.

The years have seen economic progress, and political deterioration as well. India's reinforced central government has become stronger and stronger. Continuing Sikh alienation and increased calls for an independent Sikh state, observers say, will give impetus to a devolution of power and the ongoing regionalistic sweep.

Most Indian Sikhs, including Sant Bhindranwale, considered calls for a separate Sikh state aberrations, emanating from abroad, primarily from Sikhs in London and Canada. Yet one hears them over and over today.

''By the assault on the temple,'' one Western diplomat said, ''Mrs. Gandhi has brought to fruition what (the Sikh political party) the Akali Dal has always said: 'Sikhs are different.' Now, even the moderates and the apoliticals are heeding the call.''

The gravest potential backlash, for which India is now bracing, could be communal - between Hindu and Sikh.

Reports have begun to trickle out of Amritsar that Hindus broke curfew and rushed to Army troops, offering them sweets, when it became apparent that the Sikhs' second-most-sacred building within the temple complex had been virtually destroyed.

Could Mrs. Gandhi have acted sooner, perhaps saving some lives? In the view of many observers, her negotiations with the once-moderate Sikh leaders were less than inspired. On at least three occasions in the last 20 months, agreement was virtually achieved on the Akalis' religious and political demands. Then, at the 11th hour, Mrs. Gandhi always turned back.

Today, according to reports coming out of the Punjab, ''Bhindranwale lives'' has been scrawled across village and city walls. As soon as the graffiti is discovered, it is washed off by the Army's enlisted men. Then, almost inevitably , the next morning it appears again.

Who really died inside the temple? The government has refused to say. Only five post-mortem reports, according to official sources, actually bore names. The rest were marked ''unidentified extremists.'' All have been cremated. Families don't know if disappeared sons and daughters are dead, arrested, or underground.

More than 4,200 alleged extremists are now under arrest. Who are they? The government will not say.

At least 20 foreign women are now reportedly hospitalized in Amritsar - all wounded inside the temple when the Army went in. The vast majority of them, according to an Indian newspaper, are said to be American. But, again, the government turns a deaf ear.

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