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Chandigarh: The Jinxed Jewel


Time, Feb. 9, 1970

Photo: Le Corbusier

In the early 1950s, the great French architect Le Corbusier designed the city of Chandigarh as a capital for India's sprawling Punjab state. Though shantytowns have long since sprung up alongside its lovely cubes and rectangles, Chandigarh (pop. 150,000) still stands out like an exquisite jewel in the blazing Punjab plain. From the first, however, it has been a jewel with a jinx-accursed, like the Hope diamond.

In November 1966, after savage rioting, the Punjab was split in two, creating a predominantly Hindu Haryana state and a Sikh-dominated Punjab state. Both communities demanded exclusive possession of the capital city. Premier Indira Gandhi promised to settle the matter as soon as the 1967 elections were out of the way, and in the meantime allowed Chandigarh to remain the capital of both states.

Three years passed. Last October, an 83-year-old Sikh, protesting the division of Chandigarh, died on the 74th day of a fast. In the ensuing crisis Sikh leader Sant Fateh Singh, who had been threatening self-immolation off and on since 1966, vowed to go through with it this time unless Chandigarh was given unconditionally to the Punjab. He set Feb. 1 as the date. As if to underline the Sant's resolve, his attendants had collected kerosene and firewood at their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. To complicate matters, a Hindu named K.K. Toofan, fasting outside Indira's residence in New Delhi, threatened a suicide of his own if Chandigarh was not turned over outright to Haryana.

No matter what Mrs. Gandhi decided to do, trouble was bound to follow. She put off a decision as long as possible. But with Sant Fateh Singh's deadline approaching, she had to make up her mind. Three days before the Sant's scheduled bonfire, she announced that Chandigarh would go to the Sikhs; in compensation, the Hindu state would be given $26 million for a new capital, and in addition would be ceded a part of the Punjab's fertile Fazilka precinct containing 114 Hindi-speaking villages.

Fair as the compromise seemed, it enraged both communities. Mobs in Haryana attacked railway stations and burned trains and buses; eight persons died in the rioting. Angry Sikhs hurled stones at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where elders of the Akali Dal Party released the fasting Sant Fateh Singh from his suicide vow. 'My pledge has been fulfilled,' murmured the Sant, accepting a glass of orange juice from the temple's head priest. And Chandigarh, named after Chandi, the North Indian equivalent of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, has lived up to its name.