New DELHI, Feb. 14, India, Reuter: Punjab’s embattled Chief Minister said today most of his supporters in the State Assembly had defied an ultimatum from the High Priests of Sikhdom and were backing his bid to cling to power.

Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala, a moderate Sikh anathematized on Wednesday by the High Priests for refusing to dissolve his party, denied a statement by the Priests that up to 17 of his 47 supporters in Punjab Legislature had deserted him in response to their edict.

He told reporters in the state capital Chandigarh that his government retained and “absolute majority” in the State Assembly in the long battle between Sikh crusaders and Sikh stooges for political control in the strategic north Indian State.

Barnala secured support last night of the 40-odd members of his faction.

But this morning there were signs his support was eroding and political sources in Chandigarh told Reuters that at least five legislators, including two ministers, had abandoned Barnala and accepted the authority of the new organization.

The Priests had given members of the Akali Dal Party, of which Barnala heads the ruling wing, until noon to abandon him, declare loyalty to them and join a new unified Akali Dal dominated by Barnala’s hardline opponents, As the deadline passed High Priest Darshan Singh announced in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine, that all Sikhs would “boycott” Akali Dal members who ignored their deadline.

Darshan Singh said 16 or 17 Barnala supporters had declared support for the Priests, reducing the followers of the excommunicated Chief Minister to 30 in the 117 member Assembly, but he did not name the deserters.

Singh also excommunicated Rachpal Singh, leader of a small Akali Dal faction who refused like Barnala to disband his followers.

Political sources in Chandigarh said four members of Barnala’s faction including three former ministers went to Amritsar to bow to the Priests by noon, but they said they carried pledges from 13 other legislators.

However, Barnala told reporters, “There have been no large scale defections and my government and party are intact”.

The 63-year-old Chief Minister has steadily lost political support among Punjab’s 14 million Sikhs with the failure of the Punjab and Indian governments to fulfil a 1985 accord intended to fulfil Sikh demands.

Article extracted from this publication >>  February 20, 1987