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India: A New Cycle of Violence


Time, May 20, 1985

Photo: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (center), with armed entourage

The time was 7 p.m. last Friday, the end of the rush hour, and New Delhi bus stations were filled with commuters headed back to the suburbs. At the interstate bus terminal near the old city's Kashmir Gate, passengers were boarding two long-distance buses bound for towns in the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh. Suddenly explosions ripped through the vehicles, shattering windows and filling the station with acrid smoke. Panic broke out and passengers frantically scrambled away from the platforms. When rescuers arrived a few minutes later, they found seven people dead in the wreckage; 30 others were injured, many critically.

Over the next twelve hours, at least 19 explosions went off in other public places in the Indian capital - bus stations and bus stops, shops, even a ricksha or two - and soon reports flowed in of similar incidents in nearby states. Eleven people were killed in Haryana, two in Rajasthan, and 22 in Uttar Pradesh, including 14 people who perished in blasts that ripped through two trains. One was the Himachal Express, bound from New Delhi for points north. It was pulling into the station at Meerut, 37 miles northeast of the capital, when a blast ripped through one of its coaches, leaving seven dead and eight injured. At a bus stop in Haryana, a man exploded a hand grenade strapped to his body, killing himself and two bystanders. By week's end the death toll stood at 79 - 42 in New Delhi alone - with more than a hundred reported injured. Many of the dead were children.

It was the worst terrorist onslaught in any single day since India became independent 38 years ago. Within hours after the first bomb exploded, police blamed the rash of attacks on terrorists belonging to India's Sikh minority, which for the past three years has been agitating for greater autonomy. Sikh terrorists had last, and most spectacularly, struck in New Delhi on Oct. 31, 1984, when two bodyguards, both Sikhs, assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as she was walking from her residence to a television interview in her garden. Now, declared Home Minister S.B. Chavan, 'a coordinated, well-planned operation has been launched to terrorize, to create fear in the minds of citizens and to disrupt communal peace and harmony.' The government, he said, would take 'the sternest measures' to restore peace and order.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, already beset by unrest in the states of Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir, immediately called his Cabinet into emergency session and ordered special security measures. Police leaves were canceled and troops in battle gear called in to patrol sensitive areas of the capital, particularly the sections along the Yamuna River that have large Sikh populations. President Zail Singh, himself a Sikh, called off a planned state visit to Zambia to be on hand in what the government considered a major emergency.

The terrorist strikes raised the possibility of another sectarian bloodletting between Sikhs and Hindus, the largest of India's religious groups. An estimated 2,000 Sikhs were killed in massacres following Indira Gandhi's murder. As Sikhs in New Delhi and elsewhere huddled in their homes, fearful of another murderous backlash, security forces sealed highways into and out of the city and subjected plane, train and bus passengers to careful searches. Police swept through ten Sikh temples in New Delhi, hunting for suspects. Some 200 Sikhs were detained in New Delhi; 600 more were arrested in sweeps in Haryana and Punjab.

The terrorists' new campaign was a defiant challenge to Gandhi's efforts to find a peaceful solution to Sikh grievances, and shattered hopes for early negotiations. Since he took office after his mother's assassination, Gandhi, 40, has given top priority to dealing with the Sikh crisis. For the past three years, that struggle has focused on Punjab, a northwestern state in which the Sikhs, a relatively prosperous 2% minority in greater India, have a slight majority. Tensions came to a head last June after armed Sikh radicals, many of them demanding an independent state to be called Khalistan, barricaded themselves in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhdom's holiest shrine. After a week-long standoff between the rebels and the government, the Indian army stormed the temple, at a cost of some 600 lives.

Indian intelligence officials suggested last week that the latest wave of terrorism was being conducted under a unified command, and charged that given the sophistication of the onslaught, some of the terrorists were 'foreign trained.' Most of the explosive devices used in the attacks were hidden in transistor radios casually left in public places. Unsuspecting passersby picked them up and turned them on - and then the bombs exploded. Eyewitnesses said that shortly before the blasts in the terminal, a Sikh had boarded the bus, left a radio on a seat and got off just before departure time; similar accounts were given in connection with other incidents. One man unwittingly carried such a bomb 150 miles, from Chandigarh to his home in New Delhi, where it exploded, killing him and another person. Police found and defused about ten devices shaped like cricket balls; two were discovered on the grounds of the Parliament building.

Even if authorities manage to stave off a backlash, the terrorist strikes were a severe setback for the youthful Prime Minister. Since he led his Congress (I) Party to an overwhelming victory in last December's parliamentary elections, Gandhi has made significant concessions in an attempt to bring Sikh political leaders to the negotiating table. He released Sikh leaders who had been held in detention since the army assault on the Golden Temple, ordered an independent inquiry into the massacres that followed his mother's death, and lifted a ban on the All-India Sikh Students' Federation, the most radical Sikh group. To little avail: his efforts have been stymied by factional wrangling among moderates and extremists for control of the Akali Dal, the main Sikh political party.

That power struggle took a bizarre turn two weeks ago. Joginder Singh, 83, the father of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the firebrand who had led the revolt for an independent Sikh state before he died in the army attack on the Golden Temple, suddenly announced the formation of a nine-member ad hoc committee to run Sikh affairs. Joginder Singh's selection of a number of extremists as members of the new group indicated that the action was an attempt to supersede more moderate leadership of the movement.

Joginder Singh also named Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, 49, the Akali Dal's president and leader of the moderate faction within the party, to the committee. Longowal, a forceful advocate of struggle against what he calls an 'unjust government' in New Delhi, does not subscribe to the idea of separate nationhood. After last week's bomb attacks, he resigned.

Like Bhindranwale, the radicals are determined to prevent a peaceful settlement. They aim instead to provoke a showdown between Hindus and Sikhs of such intensity that the 14 million Hindus who reside in Punjab would be forced to flee. That, the radicals believe, would inevitably result in the creation of an independent state. As one analyst of Sikh affairs explained last week, 'The ghost of Bhindranwale cannot be exorcised.' To speed what they hope will be a massive Hindu migration out of Punjab, Sikh terrorists have marked local Hindu leaders for assassination. In recent weeks, three have been gunned down. Among them: Balbir Singh, the state president of the opposition Lok Dal, who was killed the day before the bombings began.

The latest violence added to an epidemic of turmoil that has broken out in several parts of the country in the past two months. In the western state of Gujarat, army reinforcements were brought in from positions along the Pakistani border after 91 people were killed and many homes and shops burned in rioting to protest job and education quotas for disadvantaged castes and tribes. Last week a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect in Ahmadabad and soldiers patrolled the city. To the north, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a general strike called by opposition parties erupted into violence. About 100 people were injured and 200 arrested as a result of the disturbances.

Referring to those earlier troubles, Gandhi had assured the All-India Congress Committee, the party's equivalent of a U.S. political convention, at its meeting in New Delhi on May 4 that 'no amount of agitation can take away the power given to us by the people.' But he warned that the turmoil was an indication that opposition forces were reorganizing for confrontation with the government after the drubbing they took in the December elections. Some political analysts have gone further, suggesting that the pattern of violence is disturbingly reminiscent of the beginning of the opposition's 1973 campaign against Indira Gandhi. Demonstrations in Gujarat that year spread to other states and culminated in the imposition of emergency rule by Mrs. Gandhi in 1975.

To many in India, last week's terrorism only served to underline the parallels. It also added to fears that India, which has seen its share of bloody unrest since independence, will now have the difficult task of coping with yet another extended cycle of violence.