This proud minority's demands for greater autonomy catalyzed into an increasingly violent campaign after the Army's 1984 raid on the Golden Temple. Many Sikhs view it as an attack on their community and dismiss the government's stand that it was a justified move against armed radicals. Sikhs feel they need a morale booster to regain a sense of belonging to India. FOR India's minority Sikh community, recent years have been a period of darkness, marked by a growing sense of bitterness, humiliation, fear, and uncertainty over the future.
Two years ago on the night of June 5-6, 1984, Indian Army troops raided the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the country's 16 million Sikhs. From within the temple's precincts, a band of militant Sikhs headed by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had led a two-year campaign of armed defiance against the central government. Mr. Bhindranwale, several hundred Sikhs, and about 50 soldiers died in the battle.
With that quick but costly assault, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government had hoped to break the recently revived Sikh independence movement.
But five months later, Mrs. Gandhi was shot by Sikh bodyguards. And today, the number of Sikh extremists and their supporters has multiplied. The push for a separate state of Khalistan (``nation of the pure'') has escalated. The prosperous state of Punjab, the Sikhs' homeland, lies vulnerable to Sikh terrorist activity as well as Hindu retaliatory attacks.
Violence has intensified in recent months, in which nearly 250 people have died -- most of them Hindus killed by Sikh extremists. As tension grows, Hindus are migrating from Punjab to other states; Sikhs outside Punjab are moving back there or overseas.
``The Sikhs are currently in a very confused state, starting from the humiliation they suffered from events in 1984 up to the present time,'' says Manmohan Singh, a prominent Sikh businessman. ``Suddenly, they find that their historic position of strength as soldiers, farmers, and businessmen has disappeared.'' Suspicion, alienation sow doubt
Although their role in India's politics, military, business, and professions may have diminished only slightly in recent years, Sikhs have complained of discrimination or harassment. Many Sikhs say they are looked upon with suspicion. Several say they are doubtful of their future in a country where they feel insecure and alienated from the community at large.
``Now it's almost as if the entire Sikh community is treated as traitors,'' says Saroop Bomrah Singh, a 38-year old artist and woodcraftsman.
In the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, when more than 2,000 Sikhs were killed within a week in the capital, journalist Taveleen Singh observed: ``There's a great deal of tension now, for fear of a similar outbreak. . . .''
Despite initial efforts by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to redress their grievances, Sikhs are becoming increasingly cynical over what they see as his failure to pursue the initiatives -- such as giving control of the shared state capital of Chandigarh to Punjab (a move postponed from January until later this month), redrawing state boundaries, and sharing river waters.
Analysts say that divisions and infighting among the Sikh leadership are as much to blame as the central government for the current situation.
Sikhs make up less than 2 percent of India's 750 million population. In Punjab, they constitute a 52 percent majority. Historically, however, they have had a greater influence over India's economy and politics than their numbers alone suggest.
Sikhism was founded some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the first of 10 teachers or ``gurus,'' who shunned the caste-bound beliefs of Hinduism, India's historic religion, as well as the Islamic religion of the Mogul emperors. The word ``sikh'' means disciple. Guru Nanak tried to combine Hindu and Islamic tenets in a monotheistic creed. Over time, Sikhs gradually developed into a militaristic force to counter religious persecution from Muslim rulers. They also feared their religion would be absorbed into Hinduism, a concern voiced even today. The last guru, Gobind Singh, began a new order, the ``khalsa.'' He forbade them to cut their hair or beards and required them to carry a comb and dagger, and wear a steel bangle and breeches.
Under British rule, Sikhs initially enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity. The British absorbed the stalwart Sikhs into the Army and police forces. The British also introduced canal irrigation in Punjab, transforming it into the country's most agriculturally productive state. Despite the turmoil after independence in 1947, the Sikhs generally flourished, making Punjab a model of third-world development.
But as population increased and productivity declined proportionally, many youths became economically dislocated. According to eminent Sikh author Khushwant Singh, this provided the basis for formation of ``political consciousness among the Sikhs.''
For the most part since independence, political instability has ruled in Punjab. Perceiving a threat of Hindu communalism, leaders of the main Sikh Akali Dal party sought to maintain a separate identity for the Sikhs. Under successive governments, they stepped up demands for political autonomy and economic benefits that were more reflective of Punjab's substantial contributions to the country's economy.
``There was a tendency by the government not to allocate public funds to Punjab because of its relative prosperity,'' says Jasdev Singh, a youthful entrepreneur. ``The government also deemphasized the development of heavy industries in Punjab because it's a sensitive border state.'' As a result, only small- and medium-scale industries have been built, he says. Roots of Sikh agitation
These political, economic, and religious grievances formed the basis of the moderate Akalis' and the radicals' agitation which led to Operation Bluestar, the Army's code name for Golden Temple storming.
According to Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, New Delhi-based correspondents for the British Broadcasting Corporation, Sikh radicalism grew into a potent force mainly because it was exploited by members of Mrs. Gandhi's Congress (I) Party to weaken the parties in Punjab. In their book, ``Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi's last battle'' (Jonathan Cape, London, 1985), Mr. Tully and Mr. Jacob also say Mrs. Gandhi's ``indecisiveness'' is partly to blame for the rise in radicalism. Peace efforts bear little fruit
Last July, her son Rajiv Gandhi tried to heal the division, signing an accord with moderate Akali leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. Sikh extremists, unwilling to settle for anything less than an independent state, killed Mr. Longowal the following month.
In January, extremists occupied the Golden Temple. On April 30, Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala sent in police and paramilitary troops to oust them. But, while many in India were relieved at the minimal loss of life in comparison with the 1984 operation, the move did not help strengthen Mr. Barnala's ailing leadership. The moderates are still divided, and the Khalistan movement -- whose leaders remain at large -- continues to gain more support.
Although Punjab is India's major producer of wheat and rice, a mood of economic discontent prevails.
In the military field, the Akali Dal party maintains that the Sikhs' role in the Army has gradually declined. But there is as yet no hard evidence to prove this. The Sikhs' participation has stayed at about the same level -- 10 to 12 percent of a total 1 million-plus Army -- in the last decade. Sikh leaders say they are concerned that Sikhs in the military are being denied promotions because of lingering suspicions.
Operation Bluestar, which triggered the defection of about 5,000 Sikh soldiers, brought profound changes to the image of Sikhs in the Army.
``Our role has always been in the forefront of the country's defense,'' says retired Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora. ``Overnight, there was loss of confidence in what the government was doing. But the Sikh community has always felt that it was brought about by religious provocation, not insurrection.''
A prominent Sikh industrialist, who declined to be identified, complains of official harassment. For more than a year and for no apparent reason, he says, the government refused to grant him occupancy permits for a new hotel in New Delhi for no apparent reason.
``There are just small things which, if they're allowed to continue, make you concerned.''
``Sikhs by and large feel that after many years of sacrifice in Punjab, their self-respect has diminished,'' the industrialist says. ``From the top business people to the lowest level of the community, Sikhs need to be given a moral boost to regain their sense of pride.''