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In India's Punjab, Sikh Separatists Lay Down the Laws

AT the point of a gun, Sikh separatists are imposing a brutal code of militancy on Punjab.As their influence spreads from northern strongholds around Amritsar into the southern farmlands, militant dictates overshadow daily life. Many shopkeepers have repainted signs in saffron, the symbolic color of martyrdom and militancy among Sikhs. Schools have been forced by extremists to exchange uniforms for saffron-colored dress. Government offices and schools have been told by extremists to stop the use of Hindi, India's major indigenous language, and replace it with Punjabi, the first language of many Sikhs. Many liquor and barber shops have been closed down. (Devout Sikhs do not drink or cut their hair for religious reasons.) And in t he Westernized capital, Chandigarh, college girls are told to grow their hair long and give up blue jeans for the salwar kameez, the traditional Punjabi tunic and pants. "Sikhs changed their [store] signs because the public is with them and they have some support. The Hindus did it because they were afraid," says shopkeeper Randhir Singh, who repainted his sign, "Pop Electronics" in saffron two months ago. "But ultimately," Mr. Singh says, "we are all afraid." The extremists claim popular support in Punjab: Sikhs resent the widespread brutality of security forces, the 1984 Indian Army attack on their Golden Temple shrine, and anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that same year. Yet, sympathy is often overridden by terror. According to several residents of Punjab, the militant movement to create a Sikh homeland called Khalistan (land of the pure) has degenerated into gang warfare. Extortion demands are common, not just from militant groups, but also from repressive security forces. Hundreds of rural Hindus and Sikhs have fled their isolated farms for the security of towns and cities. The militants' new regimen in Punjab reflects deepening ethnic and religious divisions in secular but predominantly Hindu India and a growing sense of alienation among minorities. Traditionally, the Sikh religion was considered an outgrowth of Hinduism, and Hindus and Sikhs lived side by side. Often, a rural family would raise some children as Sikhs, some as Hindus. But the violence has taken its toll on Punjabi society. "With the sort of discrimination I face as a Sikh, I don't go out of Punjab anymore," says a university professor. "The present climate is every Hindu is a Hindu and every Sikh is a Sikh. The cleavage is very deep. It's as bad as it was in 1947 between Hindus and Muslims," he says, referring to the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Many Hindus agree and have fled Punjab in recent years. Those who stay pay a price. Om Prakash Vij, a college principal and native of the relaxed town of Patiala, was shot dead on campus by two Sikh militants earlier this year. Patiala residents say it was because he refused to switch the college curriculum from Hindi to Punjabi. His widow, Shobana, isn't sure. "My husband had more Sikh friends than Hindus," she says. "My husband loved Punjabi because he was a Punjabi. We still can't understand why it was done." Nirmal Kanta was another Punjabi who shared two religious traditions and suffered for it. Her husband and three sons were Sikhs. She would usually recite both Hindu and Sikh prayers and, like Hindu women, wore a sari. As a high-school principal, she won a national reputation for her strict discipline and intolerance of cheating and shoddy teaching, but angered many students. She defied the militants by singing India's national anthem and reciting both Hindu and Sikh hymns at the beginning of the day. She refused to close the school when local militants called strikes. The day before she died, two extremists visited the school and demanded she change the uniforms to saffron, close the school when ordered to, and stop singing the national anthem. She assured them of compliance but said she needed to discuss the demands with the other teachers. The next day, she was shot dead. Many Punjabis have no choice but to struggle to maintain some semblance of a normal life. Rajinder Singh Khara moved to Punjab in 1984 to escape anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi. For $40 a month, he works in a liquor store though he knows it's risky. "I can get no other job," he says. "My family has to eat."