New Delhi, India — Campaigns for elections that will return violence torn Punjab state to local rule began today under the scrutiny of an 80,000member security force.
In the face of United Akali Dal’s boycott of the elections, campaigning officially opened with more than 900 candidates competing for 117 seats in the state assembly and 13 seats in the lower house of the national Parliament.
The elections meant to return the state to local rule after two years of administration by the central government were seen as a key strategy to arrest the growing separatist movement.
The state government said it had arrested 600 people to ensure peaceful voting Sept. 25. One official said the arrests were “preventive detention primarily on the basis of past records of the persons concerned.”
Punjab Home Secretary N.N. Vohra told reporters more than 80,000 security men have been deployed to foil attempts to disrupt the elections.
Already five people have been killed and nine others wounded in random attacks in Punjab this week.
The Punjab newspaper, the Tribune, said most of those arrested were activists from the All India Sikh Students Federation, which was once banned because of violent activities, and the United Akali Dal, a radical party that broke away from the main Sikh political party, the Akali Dal.
Surjit Singh Barnala, acting president of the Akali Dal, condemned the preventive arrests, according to the Tribune.
Barnala, who replaced assassinated Akali Dal leader Harchand Singh Longowal, charged the state was indiscriminately arresting rural Sikh youths, the newspaper said.
He warned that the arrests violated the agreement signed by Gandhi.
Speaking in the southern state of Kerala on Saturday, Gandhi said “mysterious elements’ were using terror tactics to destroy his July agreement with moderate Sikhs to bring peace to Punjab.
Punjab’s home secretary, N.N. Vohara, told reporters more than 80,000 security men have been deployed in Punjab to foil terrorist attempts to disrupt the elections.
Two police bodyguards have been assigned to each of the candidates and uniformed guards have been placed at each of their homes.
Punjab Gov. Arjun Singh told the Press Trust of India news agency the state’s border with Pakistan had been sealed to prevent ‘‘undesirable elements” from infiltrating into Punjab.
“I am quite sure elections in the state will not be disrupted and over 80 percent of the electorate will take part in the poll,” Singh said.
Barnala’s party, split by factional disputes and still recovering from the loss of Longowal’s leadership, is expected to have difficulty defeating Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party.
The Congress (I) Party won the last Punjab state elections in 1980, taking 63 seats to only 39 for the Akali Dal.
But some observers believe that the Congress Party will not go all out to win the current elections, fearing another defeat for the Sikh party will further radicalize the Sikh population.
The elections were to be held last December but were postponed because of unstable conditions in the state.