More than a week after the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi unleashed a storm of sectarian violence in New Delhi, the full dimensions of mass killings of Sikhs by Hindu mobs in the capital are just beginning to reach the volatile, majority Sikh state of Punjab.
A virtual news blackout has curtailed much of the flow of information about the wave of arson and murder that swept through Sikh neighborhoods in New Delhi, leaving 600 dead by official count and more than 1,000 victims by unofficial tally.
Sikhs here are being told by the official media -- state-owned television and All-India Radio -- that the situation in the capital is normal and that reports of mass killings should be dismissed as "wild rumors." Strict censorship of news the government regards as "objectionable" has been imposed on newspapers circulated statewide from the capital of Chandigarh, which routinely are published with blocks of empty space on their front pages and accompanying notices that stories have been excised by the censor.
Some sense of the scope of the violence -- the worst in New Delhi since the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 -- has filtered through to Sikhs here by reports bythe British Broadcasting Corp. and by Pakistani television, which is transmitted from nearby Lahore.
But many Sikhs interviewed in Amritsar, the religious seat of the Sikh faith, said they were ignorant of details of the rioting in New Delhi and have been unable to contact relatives in the capital by telephone or travel there because of the virtual martial law that is in effect here.
But a seething mood of anger and frustration is building among Sikhs, who make up 52 percent of the state's 17 million population, as the first eyewitness reports of anti-Sikh violence reach here.
When the first train to reach Amritsar after a five-day suspension of service pulled into the station Tuesday, it bore a dozen bodies of Sikhs killed in the New Delhi rioting and hundreds of Sikh passengers carrying nightmarish stories of atrocities by Hindu mobs, some allegedly committed as the New Delhi police stood by and watched.
Tea shops, marketplaces and Sikh temples were abuzz with atrocity stories, some of them embellished in retelling, of the rape of pregnant women and murder of small children, even though in New Delhi Sikh eyewitnesses to the carnages consistently have said that the Hindu mobs were selective in the violence, openly saying that they were only interested in killing Sikh men.
"If half of these tales were to be believed, we must have been living in the Stone Age," a Hindu police officer here said.
An angry crowd of Sikhs chanted anti-Hindu and antigovernment slogans as the first of the bodies were unloaded on the platform, some of them visibly mutilated.
"Death to Hindus! Death to Rajiv!" some shouted. With a large contingent of security forces present, no violence erupted. Some Hindus standing on the platform watched with no outward sign of alarm, as if they understood and accepted the sudden outburst of anguish.
A senior police officer present at the station, however, said that if the Army and paramilitary forces had not been present there would have been bloodshed.
The sight of the dozen bodies was enough to render the atmosphere tense and explosive. "We never thought the horrible days of partition would be repeated in our own times," a 60-year-old Sikh said.
While the elderly Sikhs were in apparent shock and reluctant to react violently, the younger ones openly threatened to avenge what they termed the "genocide" carried out by the "Hindus and the Hindu government of New Delhi."
"It is only the beginning," said Gurdyal Singh, a student of the local Khalsa College. "You will see more of it. The Sikhs will shed the last drop of their blood to protect their honor. This will not go unpunished."
Gunbir Singh, a young textile industrialist, said that the Sikhs in India would not live like the Jews in Nazi Germany.
A sudden eruption of Sikh violence appears to have been checked, at least for the time being, by the presence of about 300,000 Army and paramilitary forces all over the state.
All street corners and thoroughfares are guarded by soldiers. All entry points to the city of Amritsar have been sealed off with barbed wire and checkpoints, manned by soldiers wielding automatic rifles and light machine guns, to prevent Sikh villagers from converging on the city for violent demonstrations.
There was no evidence yet that the two Sikh security guards who allegedly assassinated the prime minister, Salwant Singh and Beant Singh, have been openly proclaimed martyrs by the Sikh community here. Normally, martyrdom plays a central role in the Sikh militaristic tradition and the highest form of martyrdom, according to the tenets of the faith, is to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple. Gandhi had been widely condemned here for ordering the Army to storm the Golden Temple complex June 5 to flush out Sikh guerrillas led by separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
When asked about Beant Singh, who was shot to death following his capture, and Salwant Singh, who remains hospitalized, the Sikhs interviewed here appeared afraid to speak of them in terms of martyrdom. In contrast to the kind of hero worship that was accorded to Sikh separatist guerrillas killed during two years of civil unrest before the Golden Temple assault, no poster photographs of the two alleged Sikh assassins have appeared yet in Amritsar.
Nevertheless, the process of Sikh alienation from the national mainstream, which was set off by the Army action in June against the Sikh Golden Temple complex here, has become complete with the latest Sikh killings by Hindus -- who the Sikhs believe were aided by the government and the ruling Congress (I) Party.
Even moderates who had advocated a soft line toward New Delhi are now convinced that the future of Sikhs is not safe in India.
"We can no longer tell our children that we are Indians," said Dilbir Singh, president of the Association of Small-Scale Industries. "We have become aliens in our own country, and the only way to redeem our honor is to have our own homeland -- a separate Sikh state."
Another feature of the Sikh alienation is the open hostility toward the Indian Army, which Sikhs look upon as a Hindu army. As a young Sikh who asked not to be identified pointed out, if there is a war with Pakistan tomorrow, Indian soldiers will find themselves in a hostile country.
A large number of Sikhs said they are planning to emigrate to western countries, especially to Britain and Canada. Many Sikhs already have applied for emigration visas. A garment exporter confided that he was having second thoughts about his plans to invest in the state. "If Sikhs have no future in India, why should I waste my money?" he asked. "I might as well go to Southall and start a business."
On the other hand, there are Sikhs who believe that the "battle for the Sikhs should be fought from within the country."
"We are not running away from here in the face of threat," said S.S. Dhillon, an activist of the Akali Dal, the Sikh political party. "This is our land, and we would liberate it from the Hindus. It is the Hindus who should go out and not us Sikhs."