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Warriors in the Temple


Time, New Delhi, Apr. 9, 1984

Photo: Bhindranwale, with entourage at the Darbar Sahib complex (also known as the Golden Temple complex), Amritsar

Sikhs and Hindus engage in frenzied clashes

In normal circumstances, entering the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Punjab, the holiest of Sikh shrines, is a serene and majestic experience. Over the past few weeks, however, the temple has become a formidable fortress. Religious symbols mix with modern rifle muzzles, automatic weapons, swords and battle-axes. Even women are armed, and some children as young as five have daggers hanging from their belts.

The Sikhs, a sect of 12 million that broke with Hinduism at the end of the 15th century, are known equally for being charitable hosts and aggressive warriors. Today they seem solely the latter, as they are preparing for what may be the battle of their lives. Their increased demands for political and religious autonomy in the Punjab and their use of violence to enforce those demands have made them virtual enemies of the government and the Hindus who once lived peacefully in their midst. The Sikhs have become a grave concern for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Says a senior Indian official: 'It is the greatest, most volatile crisis this government has faced since the days of partition.'

Resistance to Sikh militancy from Hindus in the Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana has raised the latest violence to alarming levels. Within the past two months, at least 88 people have died and almost 250 have been wounded in frenzied clashes. In one instance, Sikh extremists threw a grenade into a Hindu religious festival in Amritsar. Three people were killed, 51 injured. The Hindus quickly became an outraged mob, charging the police and accusing them of favoring the Sikhs. Unable to contain the crowd with their long bamboo poles, police opened fire with tear gas and finally, in desperation, with bullets. Before the riot was over, the crowd had burned and looted many Sikh shops and smashed to bits Sikh-owned scooters and bicycles.

Ever since India's independence in 1947, the Sikhs claim, they have faced discrimination. Before then they had enjoyed preferential treatment in the armed forces and civil services, and were given special representation in elected bodies. With independence, those privileges were lost, and the Sikhs became politically subservient to the Hindu majority. Soon they began agitating for their own state. In 1966 they were given Punjab by the federal government. Although that state has India's richest, most fertile land, the Sikhs still felt their portion was too small compared with that of neighboring Haryana, the state created at the same time for the Hindus. Therefore, the Akali Dal Party, the political arm of the Sikhs, began an insistent drumbeat of peaceful protest. In 1973 the Akalis passed a resolution setting out various religious and political demands, among them that Punjab's capital, Chandigarh, be made a Sikh capital exclusively, and Amritsar a holy city.

Two years ago, an extreme right-wing Sikh faction emerged, thus turning the protest aggressive and radical. Its fanatical leader, Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale, 36, now commands at least 1,000 armed followers from the most sacred room of the Golden Temple. Hindus have begun to fear that the demands of the more heavily armed Sikhs will be met as Bhindranwale's movement gains momentum. Even when Gandhi assured them that they would not be let down, Hindus organized to combat the Sikh threat.

In mid-February Hindus in Haryana staged then-most violent assaults yet. A mob of 5,000 quickly grew to 8,000, attacking however many Sikhs they could find. In one instance half a dozen Sikh prisoners were held immobile and their beards and hair shorn as Hindus hooted and yelled. 'There goes your hair power,' cried out one Hindu demonstration leader, referring to the Sikh belief that spiritual power derives from long hair. Their heads shaved to the scalp, faces no longer covered with luxuriant beards, Sikhs lay in the street, blasphemed, humiliated and scorned.

Last week, in an atmosphere of anarchy, Gandhi's government imposed harsh measures of its own. In clashes between police and terrorists in New Delhi, the Punjab and Haryana, at least eight people were killed and 36 wounded. After five moderate Sikhs were assassinated by radical members of the sect, the government ordered the arrest of 1,225 young Sikh fanatics across the country who were suspected of sabotage and planning insurrection. To quell further uprisings, the government increased military patrols on all railroad lines and highways, bringing the total number of security forces assembled in Punjab and Haryana to 50,000.

Gandhi first moved forces in to surround the Golden Temple in early March, in an attempt to isolate Bhindranwale and stop Sikh provocations. It is unlikely, however, that Gandhi would decide to move them inside. By doing so, she would risk committing a sacrilege that all Sikhs, moderate and radical, would find intolerable. Since Sikhs make up 25% of the armed forces and hold key command positions, Gandhi does not wish to provoke them any more than necessary. Last weekend, in a bold bid for reconciliation, she established a committee to draft an amendment to the constitution that would define the Sikhs as a separate religion. Sikhs immediately responded to the new development by calling off the burning of 100,000 copies of the Constitution, which they had scheduled for this week. At last a breakthrough seemed possible.