Indian paramilitary forces raided the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar today after an emergency session of the Punjab Cabinet resolved to "fight to the finish" against Sikh separatists sheltered there.
As many as 200 persons were reported arrested in the attack today, which followed the "declaration of Khalistan" by a five-member committee of extremists in the Sikh shrine yesterday. The declaration, made to a group of journalists invited to the temple complex, called for international recognition of a separate state in the Punjab, where Sikhs are in the majority.
Special commando forces were flown in to Amritsar this afternoon. Along with members of the Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police Force, paramilitary units under the control of the central government, they entered one of the rest houses in the complex shortly before 5 p.m. local time, according to news agency reports. Visitors were ordered by loudspeakers to clear the complex, and a curfew was imposed in 18 areas around it, Indian news agencies reported.
It was the first major assault on the complex since June 1984, when the Indian Army launched an operation that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, including that of militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
"Today's action is on a smaller scale," said Gurdeep Singh, a journalist in Amritsar who watched the assault from his office. He estimated that about four companies of paramilitary troops and police, about 400 men, entered the complex. "There were some shots fired initially," he said by telephone, "but now it is absolutely calm."
"There are no reports of any casualties so far," Singh said. The director general of Punjab police, Julio Ribeiro, who oversaw the operation, told reporters, "It is our effort to see to it that the operation should be bloodless," United News of India reported.
The five members of the committee that declared the secession of "Khalistan" yesterday escaped, Singh said. "They were definitely not there when I went to the temple this morning," he said, and other agencies appeared to confirm this.
Control of the Golden Temple is vital for those who seek to influence the majority of Sikhs, as it is the seat of their religious and temporal power.
The possiblity of a separate state of Khalistan long has been the aspiration of many Sikhs, especially extremists. But the declaration yesterday by Gurbachan Singh Manuchahal, a member of the committee, stating that a "parallel government of Khalistan would be announced," drew sharp criticism from the Sikh Akali Dal government in Punjab. The declaration gave the Punjabi State government the impetus to allow security forces "to clear the temple of extremists and secessionists" after an emergency meeting of the state Cabinet.
The Indian Parliament was informed of the attack by Home Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao soon after the assault began. Parliament was in special session to discuss the Punjab crisis after yesterday's Khalistan declaration, and there was near unanimous support in the Lok Sabha, or lower house, for what Rao called the "police action."
The Akali Party leader in Parliament, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, said, "We will not allow even one centimeter change in the map of India." In a joint statement in the Punjab city of Chandigarh, 65 Akali leaders, including 50 members of the Punjab legislature, welcomed the government's action.
Former governor of Punjab Arjun Singh said in Parliament that today's action had a "qualitative difference" with the Army's operation in June 1984 because "it has the support of the mute majority of the state."