Wearing a black turban and a blue sleeveless jacket, the 32-year-old factory worker from London emerged barefoot from the Gurdwara Janamasthan, the shrine marking the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.
Six months ago, the Sikh pilgrim said, he gave no thought to politics and had been back to his native India only once in the 20 years he has lived in Britain. But the events in India since June, particularly the Indian Army's attack on Sikh militants in the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, and the massacres of Sikhs following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, have made him a supporter of a separate Sikh state, he said.
"There's no other option now," said the pilgrim, who did not want to be named.
"We are ready to give everything" to achieve a separate state, said another, "including money and our own lives." As they spoke, a loudspeaker inside the shrine in this small Pakistani town about 36 miles southwest of Lahore broadcast a sermon calling on Sikhs to support an independent homeland called "Khalistan" in the Indian state of Punjab. Other pilgrims, here to celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak 515 years ago today, wore T-shirts emblazoned with separatist slogans.
In fact, many of the more than 2,500 Sikhs who gathered here from India and various western and Asian countries were celebrating not only the birthday of their religion's founder, but the death of Indira Gandhi and the apparent spread of separatist sentiments.
At the same time, several Sikh leaders vowed revenge for "atrocities" committed against them by enraged Hindus who went on a rampage of rioting and anti-Sikh violence after Gandhi was shot last week by two Sikh security guards.
The assassination was an act of vengeance for the Indian Army's attack June 6 on armed Sikh militants barricaded inside the Golden Temple in the northwestern Indian city of Amritsar. At least 600, and possibly more than 1,000, Sikhs were killed in the attack, in which more than 80 Indian officers and soldiers also died.
"It is a religious duty of any Sikh to punish anyone who desecrates the Golden Temple," said Piara Singh Sandhu, a member of the Khalistan Council, a Sikh separatist organization based in London.
"Nobody condones assassination, but this was natural," said another council member. "For each and every Sikh, it Gandhi's death was the happiest day in our lives. It was like the death of Hitler for the Jews. You couldn't have kept Jewish families from celebrating the death of Hitler."
"At least we got some revenge," said a woman merchant from Amritsar. "That's our Mecca, our Jerusalem." She said that when word of the assassination reached Sikhs in India's Punjab, where they make up a majority of the state's approximately 17 million population, "People were overjoyed." The Golden Temple was lit up and there was "rejoicing throughout the Punjab," she said.
"We have been beaten like shoes," the merchant added. "Now, instead of being slaves, we must get freedom." But this would be difficult, she said, because the Indian Army had imprisoned Sikh leaders and taken away Sikh youths accused of being terrorists.
"We don't have proper leaders to lead us at present," she said, adding that those who remain are "inefficient" or "cowed by threats from the Indian Army." She said, however, that she was not afraid to fight for an independent Khalistan and swept aside her shawl to reveal a kirpan, a dagger carried by Sikhs in a sheath at the waist as a religious symbol.
The militancy of many Sikhs who have gathered in Pakistan this year for the annual pilgrimage to Guru Nanak's shrine appears to have raised some concern in both Islamabad and New Delhi.
India protested sharply to the government of President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq after Pakistani newspapers reported on Tuesday statements by the visiting Sikhs demanding "total independence" from India and revenge for the recent massacres.
A Lahore paper, Nawa-i-Waqt, quoted one Sikh leader living in the United States, Ganga Singh Dhillon, as saying that Sikhs in the Indian Army "will surely take revenge for this barbarism and savagery," and that any Sikh who agreed to anything less than a fully independent Khalistan "is a traitor and deserves to be beheaded."
In a meeting with Indian Sikh leaders after receiving an Indian protest note, Zia called on the Sikh pilgrims to "avoid activities that might create an unwarranted misunderstanding" between India and Pakistan.
A senior Foreign Ministry official in Islamabad acknowledged that "the events in the Indian Punjab since last June have made a negative impact on Indian-Pakistani relations." He said this was unjustified, "because what's happening in India is on account of a long background of deteriorating relations between the central government and the Sikh community." He asked whether Indian authorities were "trying to find a scapegoat for their own failures of policy and misjudgments" by suggesting that Pakistan was supporting Sikh militants.
"We are not backing them up," said Brig. Gen. Noor Husain, the director of Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. "We have our hands full already" with domestic political problems and the presence of more than 2 million Afghan refugees in the country, he said.
He labeled "absolutely fictitious" Indian charges that Pakistani authorities were behind the smuggling of weapons into the Indian Punjab and the training of Sikh militants on the Pakistani side of the border.
Western diplomats said private arms merchants may be smuggling weapons obtained from Moslem guerrillas battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan, but that they saw no evidence that the Islamabad government had a hand in arms trafficking across the Indian border.
"Whenever they the Indians have problems internally, they like to blame it on foreign powers," Husain said. "We have no intention of interfering" in the Sikh issue, he added. "It's very much an internal affair of India."
Nevertheless, the Hindu-Sikh turmoil in India appears to be viewed with a measure of satisfaction among some Pakistani officers, who say it makes any Indian attack on Pakistan more difficult and risky. The two countries have gone to war three times since the 1947 partition that carved off Moslem Pakistan from predominantly Hindu India.
Husain said it would be "very foolish" for the Indians to attempt any retribution against Pakistan for the perceived Pakistani support for the Sikhs.
"What guarantee is there that the Sikhs in various Army units would not turn their weapons in the other direction?" he asked.
In any case, he said, India's ethnic problems are "of its own making" and New Delhi will now have to cope with the "very deep sense of vendetta and revenge" that the Sikhs get from their religion.
"The Punjab has found its place on the insurgency map of the world," Husain said. "I don't see the breakup of India as such, but I think there's going to be controlled chaos for the next decade or so."