AMRITSAR Punjab, India: Reuter: Sikh separatists and moderate politicians are waging a desperate battle in Punjab for control of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine.
Most Sikhs believe the faction that holds the Golden Temple would have the upper hand eventually in controlling the political instruments of the Sikh majority North Indian State.
The Sikh religion and the Temple are managed by Five High Priests, one of whom occupies the position of Head Priest of the Akal Takiit, or the eternal throne, inside the Temple.
The Chief of the Takht automatically becomes the spiritually and temporal leader of the faith.
For the first time in the 500yearold history of Sikhs there are 15 claimants for the five posts and none is in occupation of the throne.
The Indian government, which last month banned the use of religious places for political purposes, has its own set of priests it would like to see take control.
Another has been named by the powerful Panthic Committee, which is steering the militants’ struggle for an independent homeland, and the third by the United Akali Dal which controls the Temple Management Committee.
In March, the government freed militant leader Jasbir Singh Rode after more than two years in detention and his supporters appointed him Head Priest of the Akal Takht.
Rode, 33, began doing a balancing act, calling for “complete freedom” for Sikhs but staying short of openly advocating a separate homeland, which the separatists call Khalistan, or land of the pure. His plans, however, were upset by the Temple siege in May.
The siege lasted 10 days during which 30 militants were killed in gun battles and more than 150 surrendered.
Two days after the siege rode and his colleagues tried to march to the temple but were taken into police custody.
Rode remains in jail. Also in prison is Harcharan Singh Delhi Who was named new Head Priest of the Akal Takht. The Panthic Committee’s nominee for the post remains underground.
More than 1,300 people have been killed in Punjab this year in separatist violence, including more than 60 in bombings in the past week, compared with about 1,230 in all of 1987.
Militants have stepped up their campaign, hoping a Hindu backlash against Sikhs would unite the community under their leadership.
The government tried to stop the temple management committee naming new priests, detaining some members as they prepared to make a statement.
Said the Committee’s Secretary Bhan Singh: “We are firm on our choice of the Priests. We are not going to budge”.
The Committee, known by its Punjabi initials SGPC, is dominated by the United Akali Dal, whose leaders, including former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, are in jail.
Political observers in Punjab believe the Indian government wanted Rode to unite all militant factions so it could open talks with them on a political settlement and give rode a few concessions to strengthen his position among Sikhs.
Punjab, under direct rule from New Delhi since May last year, has become Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s biggest political headache. His attempts to find a settlement have failed repeatedly.
In 1985, the government reached an agreement with a faction of the Akali Dal led by Sunjit Singh Barnala.