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Battle for the Punjab
Time, Sep. 22, 1961
Photo: Master Tara Singh
On a string cot in the courtyard of the Golden Temple of Amritsar lay Master Tara Singh, 76, political leader of India's 6,000,000 Sikhs. Masterji, as he is called by his followers in the Punjab, was entering the second month of a fast he had sworn to keep unto death, or until the Indian government grants his demand for a Punjabi Suba - a separate, Sikh-dominated state. Few fasts since the days of Mahatma Gandhi's Empire-baiting hunger strikes had caused such a stir in India.
Though criticized by many for 'debasing' the almost sacred ritual of the soulcleansing fast as practiced by the Mahatma, Tara Singh knows what he wants: he hopes to force Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to partition about two-thirds of the Punjab's 47,456 square miles into an administrative area independent of Hindu domination. The Punjabi-speaking Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion is an offshoot of the Hindu but without its caste system and swarms of gods and demigods, are the only one of India's 14 major linguistic groups without a separate state.
Nehru contends that Tara Singh's demands are really religious, not linguistic, that a separate religious state within the union would not be in accordance with India's secular constitution. Moreover, if Panditji capitulated to Masterji's demands, he would antagonize the Punjab's nationalistic Hindus. Nehru also fears that if he were to give in, minority groups all over India would start to go on hunger strikes on every conceivable issue. Already the fasting fad has spread among the country's zealous crackpots: in Rajasthan, a peasant staged a two-week fast to protest a change in village boundaries; in Amritsar, one Yogi Surya Dev, who had begun a counterfast on the same day Masterji started his, continued to feed his soul by sniffing flowers.
All week long, mediators shuttled back and forth between Tara Singh and Nehru's representatives without achieving a compromise. Cynical Hindus were appraising Tara Singh's remarkable staying powers with sly references to chicken broth. But Masterji, who had been examined by eminently neutral doctors, was reported to be drinking only saline water. Bulletins on his rapidly weakening condition were issued twice daily at the Golden Temple. At week's end Master Tara Singh, his strength nearly gone, could no longer press his palms together in the traditional namaste greeting to his evening visitors. But he stuck doggedly to his vow: 'I will have Punjabi Suba or death.'