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Seeking Sikhs


Time, Jan. 6, 1961

Photo: Master Tara Singh

Seeking Sikhs

In the compound of Amritsar's Golden Temple, holy of holies to India's 6,000,000 Sikhs, long lines of tall, bearded and turbaned Sikh men and slender Sikh women passed slowly by a small wooden hut.

Reaching the hut, each Sikh dropped a coin or a bill in an offering box, then peered through a tiny glass window. Inside, on a hard mattress, lay Sant Fateh Singh, 50-year-old Sikh holy man. While doctors and disciples stood anxious watch, Sant Fateh Singh was carrying on a hunger strike. Its aim: to compel the Indian government to create a separate linguistic state in the Punjab, traditional home of the Sikhs.

Last May the Indian government arrested the Sikhs' wily political leader, Master Tara Singh, for advocating a Sikh march on New Delhi to demand statehood. Before disappearing behind prison walls, Tara Singh designated Sant Fateh Singh as his successor. For weeks stretching into months, young Sikhs, shouting 'Punjabi Suba Zindabad' (Long live Punjabi state), had poured out of the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the Sikh temple at New Delhi - into the waiting arms of tough Indian police, who hustled them off to prison. At one time India's overburdened detention camps held 20,000 Sikhs.

Ketones & Communiqués

Fortnight ago, Sant Fateh Singh decided that even more effort was required to force a grant of separate statehood. A husky 260-pounder, he announced that he was embarking on a 'fast unto death,' would take water but no food of any kind until New Delhi gave in. By last week the holy man was down to 243 lbs., and daily health bulletins, issued with Jim Hagerty-like detail, were emphasizing the presence of ketones in the urine, indicating imminent uremic poisoning.

For India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, keeping in anxious touch with developments while making a tour of Uttar Pradesh, the fast - and the whole Sikh effort - presented a number of galling ironies. In the first place, fasting as a political weapon was developed by Nehru's nationalist mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, but is now regarded by New Delhi as in bad taste. Secondly, to justify keeping Master Tara Singh in jail without proof of crime, Nehru a month ago had to insist on a further extension of the same Preventive-Detention Act passed originally under British rule to allow the imprisonment of Gandhi, Nehru himself and other Indian freedom fighters. After the bill was rammed through by a 165-10-33 vote, loud cries of 'Shame! Shame!' reverberated in the Lower House chamber.

Nehru's Chickens Home to Roost

Finally, the Sikh demand for a separate state is an embarrassing end result of Nehru's own mistakes. After the Prime Minister backed down last spring and allowed the division of Bombay State between the Marathi and Gujarati language groups, the Punjabi-speaking Sikhs became the only one of India's 14 major constitutionally recognized linguistic groups without a separate state.

Nehru and the reigning Congress Party contend that the Sikhs are less a linguistic entity than a religious community.

They argue that India, though mostly Hindu, is officially a secular country. But such secularism is not regarded by the Sikhs as a virtue.

About 1500 their founder, Nanak Chand, broke away from Hinduism because of its caste system and its vast pantheon of gods and demigods, and established a monotheistic religion without images or taboos, but with a strong moral code. Sikh men, in order to emphasize their apartness, leave their hair and beards uncut and wear a dagger symbolic of the militancy of their faith. Through better diet and attention to personal cleanliness, the Sikhs in time became markedly taller and sturdier than their neighbors, supplying the Indian army with some of its finest fighting men.

Warning Light

At week's end, police arrests of Sikhs rose to the hundreds, and aroused Sikh leaders called on their followers to rise up and court nonviolent arrest until every one of the 500,000 Sikh families had a son in jail. High over Sant Fateh Singh's hut shone a solitary red electric light. When the light goes dark, it will mean that the holy man has died. And when that happens, said a high Indian official, 'there'll be a pukka riot, you can be sure.'