As if flaunting its prosperity, the northern Indian state of Punjab glitters in the early summer sun with a riot of colors. Golden carpets of ripe wheat, quilted with patches of rich, green fields of alfafa, stretch as far as the eye can see.
Fat and content water buffaloes laze in the warm sun as shiny, new tractors methodically harvest a bumper crop of stunning proportions, even for the state where India's "green revolution" began 15 years ago. The sky is bright blue, promising the farmers a respite from the rains that could damage their crop as it lies mowed in the fields.
But another, more ominous color intrudes on the Punjab landscape these days: the bright saffron turban that a growing number of Sikh farmers are wearing as a symbol of secessionism and as a personal declaration that they are willing to become martyrs for their religion.
A wave of seething anger has been growing steadily in Punjab since more than 2,500 Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath of the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi Oct. 31, and officials of the government of her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, are looking warily toward Saturday, a potentially explosive day.
Saturday is baisakhi, harvest day and the beginning of the Indian new year. It also coincides with two anniversaries that are deeply emotional for India's 14 million Sikhs: the initiation of Sikhism as a militaristic religion by its 10th and last guru, Gorbind Singh, in 1699, and the day in 1919 when British troops opened fire on a crowd of Sikhs and Hindus in Amritsar, killing 379 and wounding more than 1,200 in what became a watershed in the Indian struggle for independence.
State and central government officials here and in New Delhi say that they hope to contain a new outburst of violence in Punjab with a heavy police and Army presence. But they also say that they are aware of the danger of the ebullient harvest mood turning ugly once the crops are trucked to market and militant Sikh leaders launch the renewed statewide protest that they have promised will begin Saturday.
In a major conciliatory move aimed at ending its confrontation with the Sikhs, the government announced yesterday in New Delhi that it will conduct an independent judicial inquiry into the massacre last fall.
Meeting another demand of the mainstream Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, the government also said it was lifting its ban on the All-India Sikh Students Federation, many of whose members were linked to Sikh separatist guerrilla activity. The government also promised to release a number of young Sikhs who have been imprisoned since a crackdown on Sikh separatism last June.
In a brief statement to the Lok Sabha, or principal house of the Indian Parliament, Home Affairs Minister S.B. Chavan said that a sitting Supreme Court judge will head the commission of inquiry into the post- assassination riots, during which Hindu mobs rampaged through Sikh neighborhoods in New Delhi and elsewhere.
Chavan told Parliament that the commission would investigate allegations of "organized violence" during the anti-Sikh riots, an oblique reference to persistent Sikh and opposition party charges that the riots were not spontaneous but were organized by Congress (I) Party followers of the assassinated prime minister.
Without mentioning the Akali Dal by name, Chavan said that a review of cases pending against arrested Sikh militants had been conducted and that further releases would be made. "I hope and trust that all concerned with the unity and integrity of India will bend all their energies to find a way out of the present situation. So much is at stake. So much, therefore, is demanded of us all," the home minister said.
The head of the Akali Dal, Harchand Singh Longowal, said last night that he would present the government decision to a meeting of the party leadership Friday. Longowal was quoted by the United News of India as saying that the government should have announced the concessions earlier and that he would press officials to meet other Sikh demands.
While the politicians in New Delhi seek to soothe the Sikhs, in Punjab the signs of mounting anger are hard to miss.
There has been a run on fabric shops for turban material of bright saffron color, which paradoxically is also the color of Hindu fundamentalism. In the fields of Punjab and in the streets of this federal city that serves as its capital, the kesari, or saffron turban, stands out defiantly on the heads of both young and old Sikhs who have been radicalized since Indian Army troops stormed Amritsar's sacred Golden Temple complex on June 6 and killed more than 1,000 Sikhs in fierce battles.
Poster photographs of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the fundamentalist Sikh preacher who led the separatist guerrillas and who died in the Golden Temple assault, have begun appearing in towns and villages in Punjab.
Cassettes of Bhindranwale's speeches have been circulated surreptitiously in Punjab, reminiscent of the tactic employed by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran in 1978. A cult has emerged in parts of Punjab that holds that Bhindranwale escaped from the Golden Temple siege and is waiting in Pakistan to lead a new round of guerrilla warfare.
Also circulating in Punjab are folk songs, said to have been taped inside jails crowded with thousands of arrested militant Sikhs, that lionize Bimal Khalsa, the widow of Beant Singh, one of the two Sikh security guards who gunned down Indira Gandhi at her home and who was shot to death by other guards. Extolling the "heroism" of the assassins, one folk song declares, "Listen, Bimal Khalsa, I, too, will do something. I will emulate your husband . . . . I will give my life to take revenge."
After a lull of 10 months, sporadic terrorism has begun to return to Punjab, including the murder of prominent Hindus and moderate Sikhs in the same hit-and-run guerrilla fashion that was prevalent in the months leading up to the Golden Temple assault. Among the victims was Krishnan Lal Manchanda, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata [National People's] Party. In Amritsar, a bomb was thrown into the home of a Congress (I) Party leader, and nearly 100 shops and kiosks were burned in anti-Hindu violence.
"The pattern seems to be intended to disrupt the initiative taken by the government, but I don't think it will be effective to the extent that it will halt the [peace] process, which most people want," Punjab Gov. Arjun Singh said in an interview.
The recent increase in violence, Singh said, "does not mean that the terrorists have the upper hand. The opposite is true. The police are also achieving successes." Singh acknowledged that there are "certain limitations" to controlling terrorism, but, he added, "The general climate and feeling that he [the terrorist] can get away with everything and anything certainly does not exist anymore."
Army and paramilitary forces are out in strength in Punjab, particularly at night, manning roadblocks and mounting patrols in an effort to curtail a resurgence of violence.
Sikhs interviewed here said that the tight security, while curbing terrorism, at the same time has radicalized many young Sikhs and created new terrorists.
"The oppression is terrible. In some villages, there are no young men between the ages of 15 and 30. Either they are dead, in jail or they have run away, maybe to Pakistan. But the government is only creating new terrorists. Young boys in jail are actually training to withstand torture. The youth are terribly angry. They are in a defiant mood," said Guardarshan Singh Grewal, a Chandigarh lawyer who since 1982 has handled most of the Akali Dal's legal cases.
Grewal, noting that separatist guerrillas can avoid capture by fleeing across the porous border into Pakistan, said that terrorism has become "an almost permanent feature in Punjab" because extremists can depend on tacit support by growing numbers of once-moderate Sikhs whose feeling of alienation and bitterness, he said, has only increased in the face of government attempts to reach a compromise with Sikh leaders.
"Everything the government does is looked at with suspicion. Whatever it does, it does half-heartedly, or with what appears to be ulterior motives," he said.
For example, Grewal said, Gandhi ordered the simultaneous release from detention of Longowal, ostensibly representing moderate Sikhs, and rival Jagdev Singh Talwandi, leader of a hard-core faction, knowing that this would create confusion in Akali Dal factional fighting and push Longowal into a more radical stance. Grewal termed the tactic "classic divide and rule."
Some moderate Sikhs interviewed said that they were embittered because Gandhi initially had refused to order the judicial inquiry into the massacres of Sikhs following his mother's assassination and because the Army command recently decorated soldiers and officers who participated in the attack on the Golden Temple.
"Most of all, Sikhs want to regain their pride. For the first time since the days of Mogul rule, Sikhs feel like a persecuted minority," said Rahul Singh, editor of the Indian Express newspaper here and a Sikh member of a 42-member government-sponsored "communal harmony" commission seeking a negotiated settlement to the confrontation.
Most Sikhs interviewed appeared aware of numerous steps that Gandhi has taken toward reconciliation, including the release of eight Sikh leaders, the appointment of a Cabinet commission to travel throughout Punjab and seek compromises with moderate Sikhs and his own trip to Punjab two weeks ago, when he promised to improve the state's economy by building a railway coach factory and a hydroelectric plant.
But at the same time, the Sikhs said the prime minister's conciliatory gestures ignore the Sikh community's widespread belief that, given the right set of circumstances, another wave of massacres or another Army attack on the Golden Temple could occur at any time.
"The problem is of our very existence. All other things are secondary. The government and the press keep demanding assurances from Sikhs that terrorism will be renounced. Well, the boot is on the other bloody damn foot now. They have to prove their sincerity," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Marindr Singh, a militant Sikh leader who currently has two sedition cases pending against him.
In rural Punjab, Sikh farmers with saffron turbans speak just as militantly, although to foreign visitors who are supposed to be banned from entering the troubled state they couch their rhetoric in anonymity, saying that if their remarks are attributed, they will be harassed or even arrested by Indian security agents.
"The Army men came to this gudwara [temple] and hung a man by his feet from that tree over there. I saw it," an elderly Sikh farmer said. They are not interested in our problems. They want only to rule us with their law. We are at their mercy."
Sher Singh, 30, a farmer who lives in Punjab about 15 miles south of Chandigarh but owns and cultivates 21 acres in adjoining Haryana State, said that he was doing well but that he feared for the future.
Singh is selling his wheat crop for a hefty 157 rupees (about $12) per quintal (100 pounds). He has eight healthy water buffaloes, several goats and a spacious brick house. Life has been good for several years, Sher Singh acknowledged. But he said he sees dark storm clouds ahead if the government and the Akali Dal do not reach an agreement on Sikh grievances.
"When times change, even the kings lose everything," he said.