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Dilemma in the Punjab


Time, Jan. 6, 1967

The scene at the holiest of holy Sikh temples was an improbable mixture of medieval pageantry and contemporary political protest. At the gates of the compound in the old city of Amritsar, 278 miles northwest of New Delhi, stood hundreds of blue-turbaned Sikh guards; their scimitars and steel-tipped spears were at the ready. On a rooftop across from the Golden Temple, helpers placed scented wood in immolation vats.

Near by, eight Sikhs in saffron 'burning' robes softly chanted their final prayers.

Inside one of the temples lay the man who had started it all: Sant (Saint) Fateh Singh, 56, the chief leader of India's 7,800,000 Sikhs. Though weakened from nine days of fasting, he, too, was scheduled for burning. He had pledged to immolate himself the next day, unless the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi granted his people new concessions.

Dramatic Entry

Only last March, the threat of Sikh violence helped pressure Mrs. Gandhi into splitting the Punjab into separate Sikh and Hindu states.

What bothered the Sikhs now was that she also divided the capital city of Chandigarh and its Le Corbusier-designed secretariat building. Sant Fateh wanted the whole place. And this time, the lady was unbending. It seemed as if the Sikh leaders would have no choice but to make good their threats to put themselves to the torch.

As the time for the first immolations drew near, chains were made ready to hold the martyrs in the flames, and many of the 2,000 Sikhs in the temple compound began to weep. Then, with only 30 minutes left, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament strode dramatically into the compound. Himself a Sikh, Speaker Sardar Hukam Singh announced that he brought new proposals from Indira Gandhi for a settlement.

Firm Stand

The assembled Sikhs gave an audible sigh of relief, and the immolations were postponed while Speaker Hukam huddled with Sant Fateh. After 2½ hours of talks, the Sant signaled his acceptance by taking a glass of orange juice from Sardar Hukam, thus breaking his fast. Under the deal, Mrs. Gandhi will arbitrate the Sikh demands after next February's national elections. As an added fillip, she promised to set up separate judicial and executive systems for the Sikh and Hindu states.

The proposals fell far short of the Sikh goals, and cynics among the Sant's followers noted that he had seemed overly eager to escape martyrdom. The whole deal, they suggested, was prearranged. But whether it was or not, Indira was clearly the winner. Lately she has been showing a tendency to buckle under public protest involving everything from cow slaughter to government control of gold merchants. This time she showed that she can also stand firm - at least until after next month's elections.

Next week Mrs. Gandhi undertakes another mission of personal diplomacy - this time with the Mizos, a fiercely proud tribe of 260,000 hill people in eastern India who resent being governed by lowland Assamese and have been showing their displeasure by blocking roads, raiding towns, and attacking Indian Army patrols. Indira's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, promised the Mizos a 'Scottish solution,' which would grant them a measure of local autonomy. Indira is expected to renew the offer.

Whether such a solution will satisfy the Mizos is questionable. At present, the Mizo National Front is insisting on nothing short of complete independence from India.