CHANDIGARH, India May 5, (Reuter): India’s rich farming State of Punjab, racked by mounting violence, is Buming on a slow fuse as the country’s 14 million Sikhs nurse what has been described as their “wounded psyche”.
Sikhs demanding an independent homeland clash daily with security forces and even moderate Sikhs are beginning to believe that the future of their 500yearold faith is uncertain in predominantly Hindu India.
The Sikh’s growing alienation springs from two events in 1984.
The first was the Indian army attack on the Golden Temple, the faith’s holiest shrine, followed by the deaths of nearly 10,000 Sikhs in violence which swept New Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assonated by her bodyguards.
Sikhs, whose faith is based on “Hinduism but incorporates elements of Islam, are traditionally
regarded as protectors of the Hindu faith and of India itself. Although only two per cent of India’s population, they form 10 per cent of the army and distinguished themselves in the three wars independent India has fought with Pakistan.
They were also regarded as traditional guardians of Hindu pilgrims.
But the attack on the Gurdwara in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and the killings in the Indian capital have etched deep feelings of bitterness in what newspapers and politicians have called the “wounded psyche” of Sikhism.
The army moved into the Temple as a tool in Indira Gandhi’s grand design of winning over the Hindu votes by projecting herself as a kind of Durga come to establish Hindu supremacy. The attack was not a military necessity but a political move in an electoral game.
“No one realized how much the attack was going to hurt the religious feelings of Sikhs”, said a retired Sikh army officer, Brigadier Bhupinder Singh.
Singh, who fought in the last war with Pakistan in 1971, resents casual remarks by Hindus questioning the patriotism of Sikhs.
“My father was in the army. My elder brother died in an air crash over China and my younger brother died working for the Indian navy”, he said.
The Brigadier has lived in New Delhi since he retired and admits feeling insecure since the 1985 rioting after the murder of Mrs. Gandhi.
Mohan Singh, an Amnitsar trader, lives in a house overlooking the Temple and witnessed the Indian Army assault condemned “Operation Bluestar”.
“I saw innocent people women and children being killed. I was trapped in my own house as fires burnt around our building. My wife and I debated whether we should leave the house and face bullets or die in the blaze”, he said.
“Tt is not for nothing that Sikhs feel the way they do”, he said.
Much of the Sikh anger in the Punjab is directed against paramilitary police who are widely accused of killing innocent people in fake encounters with so-called “terrorists”.
Antipolice feeling runs high in the Punjab countryside where many Sikhs, who make up 62 per cent of the Punjab’s population, now wear turbans dyed in the Sikh color of protest, saffron.
Angry Hindus and Sikhs last month blocked the main highway linking Amritsar to Delhi after paramilitary police brutally beat a village headman for riding a scooter without a license.
Both Hindu and Sikh shopkeepers in the village complained of police harassment.
“These people take things from our shops and never pay. Police parties staying in the village overnight also demand that we find girls for them,” said Sukhwant Singh.
Although Sikhs are divided over whether they should fight for an independent homeland, they unanimously resent the arrest of nearly 400 people after Operation Bluestar.
Most of them were seized inside the Golden Temple after the attack, and they are now in a maximum security prison in Jodhpur in Rajasthan State.
For nearly three years they have been held without charge, although the government in New Delhi says it is considering freeing him.
The detainees are being held under an antiterrorism law which says anyone found at a place where firearms were used to resist law enforcement agencies is presumed to have been involved in the shooting.
Lawyer Surjit Singh Sood, who represents the Jodhpur detainees. told Reuters: “This law has. been introduced only to kill the Sikhs”.
“Why should the accused prove his innocence?” added Sood, who said that among the 400 detainees were temple employees and ordinary pilgrims.
The Sikhs’ sense of collective injustice, humiliation and anger was expressed in the Punjab State Assembly election last year when their Akali Dal Party won a majority for the first time in the State Assembly.
The victory has, however, brought little new hope for a solution to Punjab’s nightmare, according to political analysts.