AMRITSAR, Punjab, India: April 3, Reuter: Only in India, with its vast population and endless capacity for patient suffering, would the carnage of the Punjab be endurable.
At least 500 people have been killed in the northwestern state this year —— more than half of them in March alone —— compared with 1,200 for the whole of 1987. Most were gunned down in the quiet villages around Amritsar and towards the Pakistan border.
The New Delhi government’s response to the biggest monthly toll since 1984 has been to push through constitutional changes clearing the way for emergency rule and abrogation of civil rights in Punjab.
Following a spate of mass killings, including 18 in one village last Thursday, extra security forces were sent into the state over the convoys of armoured vehicles were on the move.
Neighboring State Governors were ordered to increase patrols and New Delhi announced plans for barbed wired fences and more border posts to try to seal off the Punjab’s 300km frontier with Pakistan.
The Indian government has long said that most of the Chinese made AK47S and other weapons favored by the militants have been smuggled in from Pakistan.
Despite the upsurge kof killings and pleas of the Punjab branch of the ruling Congress (I) Party, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has hesitated to invoke the emergency powers.
“There was a consensus, with which the Prime Minister agreed, that it was not just a policing problem — the political process is not yet exhausted”, said a senior Punjab official following emergency meetings in New Delhi at the weekend.
Since last May, when the State government was dismissed, Punjab has been under President’s rule, or direct control from New Delhi. But as a means of restoring law and order, this move has failed.
Punjab Governor S.S. Ray and Home (Interior) Minister Buta Singh warned Gandhi that even emergency rule, completely suspending democratic rights, could not guarantee better results, the official said.
Gandhi agreed to stay his hand for perhaps two or three months, he said, in the hope that a political solution could still be found.
The Sikh militants are thought to number a few hundred at most among Punjab’s 18 million people but their existence expresses a collective outrage among Sikhs with which New Delhi has still not come to terms.
The militancy grew because Sikh dominated Punjab, the most prosperous and fertile state of the union, felt its special contribution was undervalued by India’s teeming Hindu majority.
In the early 1980s, the discontent grew into a kind of holy war by Sant Jarnal Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh leader New Delhi, at first hoped to control but at length had to destroy.
Bhindranwale and 1.000 others died in an all-out army assault in June, 1984, on the Golden Temple in Amnitsar, Sikhdom’s holiest shrine. This left a legacy of bitterness felt in some degree by every Sikh.
The alternate to a state of emergency is talks with a leader who can convince moderate Sikhs that the future lies in a rapprochement with New Delhi, not in some dream of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan, or land of the pure, sandwiched between India and Pakistan.
The government’s latest hope lies in the figure of Jasbir Singh Rode, a nephew of Bhindranwale released from jail last month and accepted as a spokesman by some of the major militant groups.
“Jasbir Singh is trying to weld the freedom fighting forces together and the government sees him as the most reasonable of the militants”, said one official.
“There are doubts about his ability. But if the Jasbir experiment does not work out, at present there is no sign of a viable political alternative”.
This factor could weigh against him.
Up to now, the hardliners have outflanked every move towards negotiations. As fast as a leader emerged carrying weight among the Sikhs and ready to talk to Gandhi, he had been denounced as a stooge by Bhindranwale’s heirs, the Head Priests in the Golden Temple.
Eventually, they hope, having explored every political avenue, Gandhi will be forced to talk to them, knowing they have but one demand, Khalistan.
If, instead, the Prime Minister declares an emergency, the hardliners will say he has killed democracy in Punjab, and that the fight for Khalistan offers the only hope of its restoration.
“The government wants to solve the problem by June,” said the senior official.
“Legalizing the emergency powers does not mean they are going to be used, let’s just say the government has armed itself”.