A "world convention" of Sikhs held today in the holy city of Amritsar issued a one-month ultimatum to the Indian government to withdraw Army troops from the Golden Temple complex or face a massive march led by the five head priests of Sikhism to "liberate it of Army occupation."
The Sikh religious conclave, held in defiance of a government ban, also excommunicated the two highest-ranking Sikh officials in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government, President Zail Singh and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Buta Singh. They were ordered to present themselves before the high priests for "penance."
Pandemonium erupted as militant separatists among the approximately 10,000 persons gathered at the Shaheedan Dgudwara, or temple, chanting slogans for an independent Sikh nation called "Khalistan" and demanding that the march to remove the Army from the temple complex be held immediately, according to official reports reaching Chandigarh, the capital of the northern Indian state of Punjab.
Indian journalists in Amritsar said that during the tumult the convention was abruptly adjourned without completing the agenda. The entire state of Punjab has remained closed to non-Indians, including foreign journalists, since Army troops stormed the Golden Temple complex in June to rout out Sikh separatist guerrillas. About 1,000 persons were killed in the fighting.
Kirpal Singh, head priest of the Akal Takht, the holiest shrine in the temple complex and the spiritual and temporal seat of power of the Sikh religion, read a resolution declaring that the five head priests would lead a march of "believers" on Sept. 30 to free the Golden Temple complex of Army control.
The march, if held, could present Indian security forces with their most serious confrontation with Sikhs since Army troops, backed by armor and artillery, assaulted the Golden Temple complex on June 5. That attack heavily damaged some buildings in Sikhism's holiest shrine and killed separatist guerrilla leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
The resolutions presented today held Zail Singh responsible for the Army assault, even though his position as the Indian president is mostly ceremonial and his role as supreme commander of the armed forces is mostly that of a figurehead.
The high priests also condemned Singh for holding an umbrella when he visited the damaged temple on June 8. Calling Singh's action a "gross violation" of Sikh tradition, the priests called for a "complete boycott" of the president.
The priests also charged Buta Singh with "backing out of an agreement," an apparent reference to assurances that the parliamentary affairs minister reportedly gave to Sikh leaders after the assault that the Army would leave "soon."
Sikhs gathered in the Amritsar temple were reported to have shouted "Shame! Shame!" when head priest Kirpal Singh charged that 2,500 of the holy scriptures were burned during the Army attack, and that a scripture book handwritten by Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of Sikhism, had been damaged by a bullet.
The convention appeared to have deepened divisions among Sikhs. Militants in the crowd were reported to have protested angrily over a resolution declaring support for the mainstream Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, and its relatively moderate president, Harchand Singh Longowal, who surrendered before the Army attack and who remains in custody.
Bhindranwale was not mentioned by name in the resolutions, although the high priests paid homage to all Sikhs who died in the assault, calling them "martyrs."
The convention was disrupted for more than an hour by protests against a resolution calling for the merger of all Sikh organizations with the Akali Party. Several militants jumped to the stage to voice their opposition, Indian news agencies reported.
Another split in the Sikh community was exacerbated when the convention condemned the decision by a moderate group, the Nihang Sikhs, to begin making repairs to the damaged temple complex with the backing of the government and before the Army had left. That decision, the high priests said today, "Put salt on the wounded hearts of the Sikhs."
Calling the Nihang leader, Santa Singh, a "paid agent of the government," the convention today reaffirmed the priests' excommunication of him.
In anticipation of possible violence at the convention, Indian security forces arrested nearly 1,000 persons in Punjab over the last two days, mostly members of the Akali Party and the committee that manages Sikh temples in India.
Gandhi's government said yesterday that the Sikh problem could be settled amicably if the Akali Party leaders renounced secessionism, denounced terrorism, refrained from using temples for political purposes and stopped harboring fugitives and storing weapons in religious places