A boundary dispute between the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana -- complete with state police forces and angry politicians gathered at the scene -- has renewed tension over the troubled peace process in Punjab.
The Indian government sent federal paramilitary forces to a disputed boundary village today to help supervise a linguistic survey aimed at determining which state will control the village and nearby areas now belonging to Punjab. The conflict arises from a transfer of territory between the two states set by last July's compromise peace agreement between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and India's moderate Sikh leaders.
Six months after the signing of the Punjab accord, its implementation is far behind schedule, a problem that is both cause and effect of disputes between Punjab and Haryana. The delays in applying the accord also have contributed to rising tension within Punjab at a time when the moderate leadership of the state's ruling Sikh party, the Akali Dal, has been unable to stem an ongoing terror campaign by extremist Sikhs who oppose the accord.
Acclaimed last summer as Gandhi's most important domestic accomplishment, the Punjab agreement established a framework for the gradual redress of Sikh demands for increased political power, economic advantages and territorial adjustments for their home state. But since state elections last September that brought the Akali Dal to power, there has been little progress in carrying out the agreement, leading some political commentators to accuse Gandhi of neglect.
The three-year-old crisis over Sikh demands included violent protests and riots that killed thousands of Hindus and Sikhs and led to the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, Rajiv's mother.
The first provision of the Punjab accord that is scheduled to be implemented is the planned Jan. 26 transfer to Punjab of Chandigarh, a federally administered city that Punjab and Haryana have shared as a capital. But Haryana has implied that it will not cooperate with the transfer unless it receives 54 Hindi-speaking villages from Punjab in exchange and a canal to bring Punjabi river waters to Haryana farmlands is completed.
The disputed boundary remained tense today, with state police gathered on both sides. The Haryana chief minister (equivalent to a state prime minister), Bhajan Lal, accused Punjabi police of expelling Hindi-speaking residents from a key border village, Kandukhera, to ensure a Punjabi-speaking majority during the linguistic survey.
The Punjabi chief minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, had accused Haryana police earlier of trying to force Hindi speakers into the village, saying that Haryana "has created a warlike situation on the . . . border."
Barnala said he was confident that the government commission surveying the 54 disputed villages would recommend that they remain in Punjab. Either state leader could be undermined by an adverse ruling from the central government, leaving Gandhi in a dilemma, observers say.
Observers and press reports say Gandhi is fearful of weakening Barnala and the other Sikh moderates, on whom he relies to keep the Punjab peace process going. But political observers also agreed with Inder K. Gujral, a Punjabi politician, that Gandhi faces pressure from within his ruling Congress (I) Party not to let down Lal, a party stalwart.
"Having lost control of Punjab and Assam [in state elections] over the past months, the Congress is pressing the prime minister not to lose Haryana, too," Gujral said.