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Flames in Punjab
Time, Mar. 25, 1966
For a change, there were no major food riots in India last week. Instead, something potentially more worrisome than hunger exploded into violence: communal riots, the ugly outbreak of fighting between groups of different religions or languages that has all too often bloodied the nation. By week's end, 14 persons had been killed, 500 injured and nearly 1,500 jailed as Sikhs and Hindus, who hitherto had lived together in relative peace, fought in the streets of Delhi and in scores of towns in the state of Punjab. Cried a Hindu nationalist leader: 'All Punjab is on fire.'
The flame was lit a fortnight ago when the powerful Working Committee of the Congress Party caved in to the demands of India's 7,000,000 Sikhs for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state in the western half of the present state of Punjab (see map). In the past, the demand for Punjabi Suba had been repeatedly rejected by the Congress Party on the grounds that it would establish a state on essentially religious grounds, something that India's constitution prohibits. Not so, argued the Sikhs, who claimed it was a matter of language. They are the only one of India's 14 major linguistic groups that has not been granted a separate state. Sikh leader Sant Fateh Singh, 54, threatened to go on a 15-day fast climaxed by self-immolation unless the demand was met. Anxious to avoid violence, the Working Committee, of which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is a member, at last committed the federal government to formation of a Punjabi-speaking state.
Violence came anyhow - from the Hindi-speaking Hindus who would form a minority in the new state. Protesting partition of Punjab, Yagya Dutt Sharma, 47, a leader of the militantly orthodox Jana Sangh Party, began a fast of his own in the marketplace of Amritsar. Refusing any sustenance except a few daily glassfuls of Gangajal-water from the Ganges - Sharma quickly lost 15 Ibs. in the first week, soon was unable to sit up.
Meanwhile, thousands of other Hindus carried their protests to the streets. Chanting 'Punjabi Suba Murdabad!' (Death to the [Sikh] state of Punjab!) and 'Indira Gandhi Murdabad!' (Death to Indira Gandhi!), the mobs attacked government property and set fire to Sikh shops, causing uncounted damage. In the town of Panipat, 55 miles north of Delhi, a local Congress Party worker and two other men were burned alive when Hindu rioters set fire to the cycle shop in which they were trapped. In the old city of Delhi, turbaned guards at the main Sikh temple impassively shrugged off insults and ducked stones until the harassment by a mob of 2,000 Hindus became unbearable. Then, drawing their curved swords and yelling war cries, the Sikh guards charged the mob, wounding many Hindus.
The communal rioting was of deep concern to Indira Gandhi, who only the week before had returned from an inspection trip of other trouble spots: West Bengal, where food riots had raged for three weeks, and Assam, where the 260,000 Mizo hill people staged a bitter, bloody 'war of independence' before Indian troops moved in to put down their revolt. The spate of domestic troubles complicated preparations for her trip to Washington next week. There she would have long discussions with Lyndon Johnson, and en route she would stop in Paris for talks with French officials. 'How can I say India is a great country and meet foreign leaders when violence and discord have fouled the atmosphere?' she urged the Indian people. 'This is no time to tarnish the image of our country.'