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India put to the test

WHEN the Indian government's siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar ended last week, the administration of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi surely sighed in relief. Major bloodshed had been averted; the hard-core Sikh militants who remained after hundreds of others left the shrine surrendered in relative peacefulness. The government correctly used restraint. Memories of 1984, when troops bombarded and stormed the temple, were vivid. The fury of Sikhs at seeing their holy place desecrated led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv's mother. That in turn led to the slaughter of thousands of Sikhs by angry Hindus.

But the averting of large-scale violence in the recent episode in Amritsar offers only a glint of hope. Even as New Delhi's paramilitary forces were bringing the siege to an end, Sikh separatists were murdering dozens of Hindus in night raids on labor camps. It is to be hoped that the majority Hindu community in India can now restrain itself from exacting revenge.

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On the surface, Sikh militancy presents a paradox. Though they constitute only 2 percent of India's 800 million people, the Sikhs have traditionally been an influential community. A Sikh has been India's president; other Sikhs have headed the Indian Air Force. Punjab itself is the country's richest region; per capita income among Sikhs is far above India's average.

Still, the often bloody agitation for a separate Sikh nation, to be called Khalistan (``Land of the Pure''), continues. Though the numbers of Sikhs active in the movement are small, the idea of a separate religious and national identity is deeply rooted in the heritage of that community, whose faith took shape 500 years ago as an alternative to Hinduism and Islam. Religion and politics, in Sikh tradition, have always been inseparable.

Compromises with Sikh demands haven't worked in the past, sometimes because political constraints on the government kept it from following through on its part of a bargain. Mr. Gandhi has to be very cautious about appearing to give ground to Sikh calls for autonomy, since a number of other ethnic enclaves in India would like the same consideration.

The broad answer, in India and elsewhere, is acceptance of religious diversity within the framework of democracy. India has the framework; the acceptance, though slow in arriving, can come.

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