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Violence in key Indian states keeps government on its toes

Almost as though the heat of summer -- now inching above 105 degrees -- had burned into tempers, several Indian states have been hit by recurring violence in recent weeks. The growing rift between one-time moderates and militants in embattled Punjab, home of most of India's nearly 14 million Sikhs, has led authorities to brace themselves for an escalation of violence in one of the nation's most strategic and sensitive states.

There has also been widespread violence in Gujarat and some outbreaks of fighting in Kashmir.

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In Punjab, any doubt that the name of the late Sikh militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale remains a potent factor in the state's politics was erased last week. His followers, in what amounted to a spiritual coup, took their first step in wresting leadership of the Sikhs' Akali movement from moderates.

Sant Bhindranwale's father, Joginder Singh, made a seemingly unilateral announcement last Wednesday that the feuding leaders of the Akali Dal (the Sikhs' sole political party), had resigned and, for all intents and purposes, bestowed the leadership on him. A bewildering series of denials and retractions followed from Akali Dal leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, who had clearly lost face, as well as followers, to the militants.

The power struggle comes at a time when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government has offered unconditional talks to Sikh leaders in a bid to end the sectarian crisis in Punjab. Sant Longowal has called a meeting of Akali leaders May 17 to discuss Mr. Singh's move.

In Kashmir, a general strike is scheduled for today as the unpopular state government returns to its summer capital of Srinagar. The government was installed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her ruling Congress (I) Party toppled the government of Farooq Abdullah last July.

It will be the third summer that Kashmir's shopkeepers, hotel owners, and those whose sole income is from seasonal tourist trade, could face scant earnings. Such is the political instability that grips the state, that even the fabled houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake, have not been able to lure tourists.

And, in Gujarat, ``everybody, it seemed, was fighting everybody,'' in continued violence that began in mid-March, according to the magazine India Today.

High caste Brahmins battled untouchables (the lowest in the Hindu caste system), Hindus and Muslims settled scores, and police attacked journalists and newspaper offices in the city of Ahmadabad. The Indian Army was finally called in -- as it has been numerous times in various parts of the country during the past year.

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[The state government has invited leaders of civil service unions for urgent talks in a last-minute bid to avert a statewide strike scheduled for today, Reuters reported Sunday. The strike was called because of alleged police brutality against union members during a demonstration last Monday.]

The violence in Gujarat, which has claimed at least 73 lives so far, is particularly unsettling to many Indians: This was the home state of Mohandas Gandhi, where his doctrine of nonviolence was born.

The initial cause of the violence was government policy that grants special privileges such as reserved job quotas and university admissions to untouchables. Meant to weaken the hold of the Hindu caste system, this has often had the opposite effect.

Nearly 70 percent of the state's electorate comes from the untouchable or ``backward'' castes and, before assembly elections in March, state governor B. K. Nehru, announced an 18 percent increase in ``reserved'' quotas from 31 to 49 percent. What the Congress Party governor did not foresee was the indignation and violent reaction of the upper castes.

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