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"A Man of Peace Has Fallen"


Time, Sep. 2, 1985

Photo: Harchand Singh Longowal

Sant Harchand Singh Longowal arrived at the Kamowal temple in the Punjabi village of Sherpur in high spirits. The soft-spoken president of the Akali Dal, the Sikh political party, had just come from Chandigarh, where he had persuaded two leading Sikhs to withdraw their opposition to an agreement that he and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had signed on July 24, ending three years of Sikh confrontation with the government in New Delhi. Earlier in the day, Longowal had announced that the party would contest all seats in the Sept. 22 elections for the state assembly and 13 seats in Parliament.

That afternoon, Longowal, 53, again made an impassioned plea to the 5,000 people in the temple for Sikhs to rally round the agreement and live in harmony with their Hindu neighbors. He had just finished speaking when two young Sikhs suddenly rose from their seats, pulled out revolvers and fired repeatedly at Longowal. As his bodyguards fired back at the assailants, another young man sprang forward and pumped more bullets into the fallen Sikh leader. Longowal was rushed to the hospital. That evening he died without regaining consciousness, yet another victim of the violence that has claimed some 4,000 lives in Punjab over the past three years.

Once again, the country was in shock over an assassination. In an emotional message to the nation, Gandhi, whose mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards last October, called Longowal's slaying 'a tragedy not just for Punjab but for the whole country. A man of peace has fallen to the bullets of assassins,' he said. The next day Longowal was cremated in his native village with full state honors. The funeral procession included mourners from every faith and high government officials. Conspicuously absent were members of the radical faction of the Akali Dal. The extremists had denounced Longowal as a 'traitor' for signing the accord, which will give more economic and political power to Sikhs in the state. But many extremists say they will settle for nothing less than an independent Sikh nation.

Longowal's death was seen as a major setback to the impressive start that had been made in mending relations between the Sikh community and the central government, which had been severely strained even before the army assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar last year. In the month since the settlement was signed, Punjab had been unusually quiet, giving Gandhi the confidence to announce elections for Sept. 22. After Longowal's death, Gandhi changed the date to Sept. 25 to allow for the mourning period. The elections will be the first in five years and will end nearly two years of direct rule of Punjab from New Delhi.

Longowal's murder by terrorists, two of whom were captured, appeared to be part of a new campaign of violence. On the same day that he was shot, gunmen in Punjab killed a local Hindu leader of the ruling Congress (I) Party. The next day, terrorists shot and wounded a government official in the state. The prospects for peace in Punjab now hinge on whether moderates in the Akali Dal will close ranks against the extremists. Many Sikhs are weary of the violence that has disrupted their lives and would welcome as Longowal's successor someone who can bring them the peace that their fallen leader's political skills had promised.