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Will India's Sikh accord hold?

The rejection by militant Sikh groups of an agreement between the Indian government and moderate Sikh leaders tempers, but does not destroy, optimism about this step toward a settlement of the country's three-year-old crisis. Observers here agree that it was a rare political moment when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sikh leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal signed an agreement Wednesday, aimed at settling the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab.

However, it remains to be seen whether the two leaders, who had never met until Tuesday, can bring both Sikhs and Hindus behind what, for the moment, appears a remarkable compromise.

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Sant Longowal, who heads the Sikh Akali Dal party, is expected to seek poplar approval today for the 11-point, compromise agreement amid ominous signs that militant Sikh leaders would do whatever they could to sabotage Wednesday's accord. Sikhs, who constitute less than 2 percent of India's population, had long been demanding greater autonomy for Punjab.

Among the most important -- and most difficult -- issues that the agreement resolved are: awarding the city of Chandigarh to Punjab as its exclusive state capital, and the sharing of river waters between the Sikh - dominated Punjab and neighboring Hindu states. The agreement also aims at ending the emergency powers of the central government and the Army in Punjab, addressing the treatment of Sikhs who mutinied and deserted the Army, and awarding compensation to Sikhs hit by the violence last November, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The agreement, which came as somewhat of a surprise in this normally dubious and skeptical capital, is a credit to its three principals.

For Rajiv Gandhi, India's boyish and untested premier, things came full circle as he faced and mastered his first major political test on the very issue that had cost his mother her life.

For Longowal, it was an enhancement of his stature within a volatile and divided Sikh community. Until recently, the level of his grass-roots support was questionable in increasingly violent Punjab, as radicals established their network across Punjab. Two other Sikh leaders -- Surjit Singh Barnala, former national minister, and Balwant Singh, former Punjab finance minister -- also had a role in working out the settlement.

And, for Arjun Singh, the governor of Punjab who is a close friend of Gandhi, it secured a political future. Mr. Singh incurred a good deal of censure as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, when last December's gas disaster in Bhopal claimed thousands of lives. He was sent to Punjab in March, charged with finding a settlement to the problem, and he worked painstakingly through a summer of highly secret talks.

When Sant Longowal met Gandhi Tuesday, all but two major issues had been resolved.

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These two -- dealing with river waters and the compensating award of territory to Haryana for its loss of Chandigarh (the capital it shares with Punjab at present) -- will be reviewed by judicial commissions. This decision, made personally by Gandhi, is a political gamble that will certainly cost him militant Hindu support.

This erosion of support is likely to become evident when state elections, postponed for a year, are held -- probably by October -- in Punjab. If elections are not held by then, when Punjab's fourth six-month period of direct rule from New Delhi, or ``President's rule'' ends, the Indian Constitution must be amended, a dangerous precedent for the world's largest democracy.

According to sources close to the prime minister, this was one of the factors that compelled him to find a quick solution to the imbroglio in Punjab. He was intent that popular rule return to India's richest and most strategically important state.

The fact that he was able to reach an agreement in only 36 hours -- staying up throughout Tuesday night -- was testament itself to the urgency he attached to solving the seemingly unsolvable problem.

Over the last three years, the conflict has claimed thousands of lives and opened a Pandora's box of disaffection among other minorities in this Hindu-majority, eclectic nation of six major religions and more than 200 languages.

Gandhi was clearly prepared to make major concessions to the increasingly restive Sikhs and did so in all areas except one -- regarding the treatment of some 2,000 Sikhs who deserted or mutinied in the Indian Army after its assault on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, last June. Longowal pressed for their reinstatement in the Army, but the government has refused to end court-martial proceedings against these men.

Thus, those whose acts did not result in the loss of life will be ``rehabilitated'' in the civilian sector. That poses the decided risk of Mr. Gandhi's alienating his own generals, when the agreement is finally put to the test.

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