NEW DELHI, India, July 11, Reuter: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Monday welcomed the latest efforts to unite moderate Sikhs and end violence in North India’s embattled Punjab state his biggest political headache.

“The unification of moderate’s means they will have the guts to stand up and speak out against the militants”, Gandhi told reporters before leaving for a four nation tour. More than 1,400 people have been killed so far this year in the campaign to set up an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab. The campaign killed 1,230 people in the whole of 1987.

The latest unity move came on Saturday when Amarinder Singh, member of former Punjab princely family and an old school friend of Gandhi’s, called a convention of moderate Sikhs in the town of Patiala.

The convention set up a committee to patch up differences between two major factions of the Sikh Akali Party.

“We are making sincere and honest efforts for forging unity, “said former Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala, the leader of one Akali fraction.

Unity moves have also been reportedly endorsed by Prakash Singh Badal, who heads the other faction but who has been in jail since May under security laws in force in Punjab.

The Akali moderates believe the only way to end Punjab violence is for the government, which imposed direct rule on the state in May, 1987, to concede several longstanding Sikh demands.

The moderates want a greater degree of autonomy for the state, although their demands fall far short of independence.

They also want all Sikh political prisoners released and punishment for those involved in the massacre of more than 10,000 Sikhs in New Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 by her bodyguards.

They also want Chandigarh as capital of Punjab. The city is currently joint capital of Haryana and Punjab states,

Last Friday, Barnala paved the way for unity by presenting himself before Sikh High Priests in the holy city of Amritsar and asking for pardon.

He later told reporters that Akali unity was possible in the not too distant future.

Barnala was excommunicated from the faith last year when he refused to support unity moves. Subsequently, Gandhi dismissed him as Punjab Chief Minister and imposed direct rule, saying the state government had failed tc stem violence.

Akali sources said the party also planned to issue an appeal to separatists to give up arms and join the political mainstream, but few believe the hardliners will agree.

Article extracted from this publication >> July 15, 1988