The Indian Army today attempted to contain widespread mutinies by Sikh soldiers outraged over Wednesday's assault on radical Sikh separatists in Sikhism's sacred Golden Temple in Punjab, rounding up groups of deserters near the southern city of Bombay and in Allahabad in the north.
So far, mutinies or desertions by Sikh soldiers have been reported in seven Indian states: Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. But a spokesman for the Defense Ministry continued to maintain that the number of deserters, mostly recruits, was "very small" and that most of them had been arrested.
The spokesman would provide no figures for deserters, but Indian news agency reports from the Army camps involved indicated the total was at least several hundred.
Following mutinies near Bombay and in the state of Bihar, authorities canceled some flights from Bombay airport and closed the airport at Varanasi after reportedly learning of conspiracies by rebellious Sikh soldiers to seize the airports or hijack aircraft. Special security measures have been imposed at civil airports throughout India, authorities said.
The Army's southern command said tonight that about 100 enlisted men deserted their unit near Pune, southeast of Bombay, last night, took eight military vehicles and headed toward Punjab, firing wildly along the way and killing one person riding on a motor scooter.
Maj. Gen. Depinder Singh, chief of staff of the southern command, said 60 of the deserters surrendered after a shootout near the Bombay suburb of Thana--in which two soldiers were killed and five injured--and that 40 more were arrested at Godhra, north of Bombay.
He said the deserters had been "misled and provoked" by rumors that their families in Punjab were being tortured and that Sikh temples were being desecrated.
Authorities said another mutiny of Sikh soldiers was put down today when a group of enlisted men who deserted in Ramgarh, in the state of Bihar, yesterday and attempted to drive to Punjab surrendered near Allahabad.
Reports from Ramgarh said that 125 enlisted men in 35 vehicles joined a motorcade of militant Sikh civilians after the camp commander, Brig. Gen. R.S. Puri, was shot to death and six other officers wounded in a two-hour gunbattle.
Indian news agencies reported that the remaining soldiers at the base surrendered to a mountain regiment that had rushed to Ramgarh from its base in Ranchi, 30 miles away.
On Friday, about 100 Sikh troops were reported to have deserted in Ganganagar, in the state of Rajasthan, and crossed by truck into Punjab on their way to Amritsar, site of the Golden Temple, until stopped by security forces.
While the numbers of mutineers so far have not been great, the incidents have caused considerable concern in the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi because of the likelihood they will cause mistrust between Sikhs and non-Sikhs in the armed services.
Gandhi, in a conciliatory speech to Army troops in Ladakh, in Kashmir, said today that the assault on the Golden Temple was not aimed at any one religion or political party, but at extremists "who had killed innocent people."
"We have full faith that Sikhism has played a great role in fostering the concept of secularism in the country," Gandhi said.
The Army command tonight revised upwards its casualty figures in the Golden Temple assault, saying that since it launched the operation Wednesday, 90 Army troops, including four officers, have been killed.
Army western command spokesman Maj. Gen. R.K. Gaur told reporters in Chandigarh that 292 Army personnel, including 14 officers, were wounded in the attack and its aftermath.
The Army command has not officially changed its estimate of nearly 400 Sikh militants killed in the temple compound, but unofficial reports from Amritsar said that so far 780 bodies have been cremated and that the death toll may reach 1,000.
The entire state of Punjab has been declared off-limits to foreign journalists and the government has continued a prohibition against the reporting or transmission within Punjab of any news relating to civil unrest. Telephone and telex lines to Punjab have been disconnected and most information about the situation there comes from officials in Chandigarh, which is in neighboring Haryana state but serves as the capital of both states.
Today the government also imposed prior censorship on newspapers in Punjab.
Sikhs, who make up only 2 percent of India's more than 700 million population, traditionally have had a disproportionate influence in the Indian military, although that has been waning in recent years.
The Sikh history of militancy dates to the 18th century, when the sect's 10th and last guru, Gobind Singh, vowed to avenge the execution of his predecessor, Tegh Bah Adur, by the Mogul emperor Aurangazeb and created a sect of warriors accorded status not unlike that of the medieval Knights Templars of Europe and were called soldier-saints.
The Sikh warriors were enjoined to add to their names the word singh, which in Sanskrit means lion, and to wear the five k's--kesh, or unshorn hair; kachcha, or knee-length undergarments; kangha, or comb; kirpan, or ceremonial dagger; and kara, or steel bracelets.
After the fall of the Mogul empire, and the subsequent Anglo-Sikh wars that ultimately led to the annexation of Punjab by Britain, the Sikhs reconciled themselves to British rule and prospered under it.
They did not join the 1857 Seepoy mutiny against the British, and were rewarded by appointments that swelled their strength in the Indian colonial army to nearly a third by the time of partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
However, under a 1980 government order fixing military service quotas according to state populations, Sikh representation has fallen to 12 percent and militant Sikhs claim that if the regulation were fully applied, Sikhs would soon make up only 2 percent of the armed forces. They are demanding that the 1980 quota be rescinded.
There are a number of exclusively Sikh regiments in the Indian Army, but none of them was used in Wednesday's assault on the 17th century Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most revered shrine in Sikhism.
Official sources in Punjab said that the spearhead of the attack was a mostly Hindu regiment from the state of Assam in the far northeast that had been specially trained for several months for a commando operation against the Golden Temple, while several Sikh regiments from Punjab and bordering states were sent to Assam for security duty.
Meanwhile, there were further political repercussions from the Sikh community throughout India today and some demonstrations against the crackdown in Punjab.
Sikh members of the Allahabad city council resigned from the ruling Congress (I) Party, and Sikhs closed their shops and wore black badges. The protesting Sikh councilmen demanded the Army withdraw from the Golden Temple, and that repairs be made by Sikhs, not by the government.
Two Sikh members of Parliament resigned to protest the temple raid.
One of them, Devinder Singh Garcha, said, "The wound inflicted on the psyche of Punjab during the last one week may take ages to heal."
The other, Amrinder Singh, former maharaja of the preindependence state of Patiala, resigned his seat and membership in Congress (I), saying, "My family has always been patriotic and second to none in loyalty to the nation and to its welfare. We have also had a tradition of maintaining amity between the major communities of the state--Hindus, Sikhs and Moslems--which we have religiously upheld."
The former chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, today demanded withdrawal of the Army from the Golden Temple, lifting of the curfew and handing over of control of the shrine to the Sikh's temple management committee. He urged the state governor, B.D. Pande, to provide a list of all victims to the Sikh's Akali Party.
Badal said the Indian government had "waged war" on Sikhs, and that it was the responsibility of Sikhs throughout the country to fight back.
He called on all Sikh members of Parliament and state legislatures to resign, and said he approved of the desertions of Sikhs from the Army, saying they were fulfilling their duty to Sikhism.
Reports from Chandigarh said that Badal was arrested shortly after making the statement.