By Robert Mahoney
NEW DELHI, India, Jan. 17, Reuter: As Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dithers and Sikh politicians bicker, gunmen in Punjab are killing more people than ever in their fight for a Sikh homeland.
The year has begun with an upsurge in violence in the prosperous northern state where neither politics nor security crackdown seem able to defeat the freedom fighters.
An average of nearly four people a day is being killed in the war between a handful of young Sikhs and 70,000 police and paramilitary troops.
“It is a very grim battle,” State Police Chief Julio Ribeiro told Reuters.
Meanwhile, politics have reached a stalemate.
The main Sikh party, the Akali Dal, is split in two and Gandhi has made no fresh move towards a political solution of the problem which led to the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards in 1984.
Many of India’s 14 million Sikhs complain of feeling increasingly alienated from the country’s 650 million Hindus and blame Gandhi for it.
Gandhi sacked Punjab’s moderate Sikh government last May 11 for failing to curb violence and imposed direct rule from New Delhi.
He did not follow up the move with political overtures to Sikh leaders who now say he has lost credibility. At the same time violence in Punjab has actually increased.
More than 700 people have been killed since Gandhi sent Governor S.S. Ray to Chandigarh to rule the State compared with 640 in all of 1986.
Ribeiro, who has vowed to match the gunmen bullet for bullet, said 328 freedom fighters, 95 policemen and 815 other people were killed in Punjab in 1987. That is the highest toll since Sikhs began their campaign for Khalistan (Land of the Pure) in the early 1980s.
“The freedom fighters have regrouped and rearmed,” Ribeiro said,
“But we will soon overtake them,” he added, repeating a new stale promise he has made frequently in the past.
Ribeiro said he had killed or captured 38 of 78 hardcore freedom fighters he identified last year.
But police officers admit privately they have failed to capture the leading freedom fighters or prevent new recruits from joining.
They estimate that the militants, split into four main groups, have no more than 60 “Commandos”.
Yet they are able to wreak havoc in the villages along the border with Pakistan where they. Were they have little trouble finding shelter and new members,
They are armed with assault rifles and sub machine guns stolen from police or bought abroad with funds from bank robberies and contributions from Sikh sympathizers in Pakistan, Britain, Canada, and the United States, police say.
Studying the history of other insurgencies Ribeiro and Governor Ray realize that just a handful of determined gunmen can keep a whole army pinned down.
“A very important input in this fight is missing…..A political initiative,” Ribeiro said. “The Sikhs are not actively supporting the freedom fighters but they are not at all on our side”.
Ray has told Gandhi there can be little progress unless Delhi grants a list of Akali demands and comes up with a job creating economic package to mop up Punjab’s growing number of young male unemployed, a State government official said.
The demands are;
—— The release of about 375 Sikhs held without trial since the June, 1984, Indian army assault on the Golden Temple.
—— The reinstatement of Sikh soldiers who deserted after the assault, in which about 1,000 people were killed and Sikh sensibility worldwide were offended.
—— The punishment of those responsible for the massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs, mostly in Delhi, immediately after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
—— An end to fake encounters, the alleged killing of Sikhs in police custody in staged escapes and ambushes.
Sikh leaders like Prakash Singh Badal, a former Chief Minister released from prison last month, blames the government’s inaction over these demands and heavy handed policing for the violence and the increasing alienation of Sikhs.
“The violence is a result of the government’s policy of repression and treating the Sikhs as second class citizens”, he said.
As a community, Sikhs are » among the richest in India and are prominent in farming, business, trade, the civil service and the armed forces. But they owe their prosperity to their own effort sand not to the government policies which have largely been anti farmers.
Yet the handling of their demands for more autonomy and safeguards for their 500yearold religion by both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi has added to their sense of alienation and grievance, according to leading Sikhs.
Indira Gandhi tried to thwart the Akalis by setting them against each other a policy which led to the rise of militancy, the Golden Temple assault and her death.
Rajiv seemed eager to grasp the Punjab nettle when he succeeded his mother.
But the peace accord he signed with moderate Sikhs in July 1985 has never been implemented for fear of appearing to give in to Sikh demands and so anger Hindus both in Punjab and electorally crucial neighboring states.
A leader like Badal, whose political star seems set to rise again, is certain where to pin the blame for the Punjab state.
“The Center (Delhi) is responsible for the political stalemate and unless the government behaves in a state manlike manner there can be no way out,” said Badal.
Gandhi’s supporters say exactly the same about the Akalis, and the gunmen listen to neither.