The intrusion by police and paramilitary forces into the Golden Temple at Amritsar last month has created a new split within India's Sikh community, straining government and order in strategic Punjab State.
On the surface, life in Punjab seems normal. Trucks and tractors carrying bulging sacks of grain ply the state's highways day and night. Farmers carry produce on bicycles, motor scooters and bullock carts to market towns nearby. For all the violence and turmoil, Punjab, India's breadbasket, is expected to have another bumper harvest this year.
Acts of terrorism continue to take a daily toll of several lives, however. The most affected region is now the Amritsar district around the Golden Temple complex, which is the center of religious life for India's 16 million Sikhs. The area is under curfew.
The town of Tarn Taran nearby is patrolled by the Central Reserve Police, a paramilitary force, to check extremist violence that erupted after the latest official incursion into the holiest Sikh shrine.
Punjab's chief minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, a Sikh, ordered troops into the Golden Temple the day after a five-member committee proclaimed, from within the temple precincts on April 29, a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. The five were spokesmen for a group of militants who forcibly took charge of the temple last January, deposing the legal temple management committee.
The assault raised fears of a replay of the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. In the riots that ensued, thousands of Sikhs and Hindus were killed. Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, was assassinated.
Sikhs have long demanded increased political power, economic advantages and territorial adjustments for their home state of Punjab. An accord last summer between the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and moderate Sikh leaders established a framework for the gradual fulfillment of those demands. But there have been delays in implementing the accord and extremist Sikhs who oppose it have carried out a campaign of terrorism.
The militants charge that Sikhs have been discriminated against, arrested and killed indiscriminately in the government crackdowns of the last several years.
In the latest raid, one youth died and two more were injured. Four of the five-member committee of secessionists escaped. The fifth, Gurdev Singh, was caught. Of the 300 who were arrested, most were pilgrims who later were released. A few pistols were seized.
The control of the temple was handed back to the temple management committee that traditionally had managed most Sikh temples. "To the extent that we restored the temple to them, our attempt was successful," said Julius F. Ribeiro, the state's director general of police who coordinated the operations. Policemen are still on guard in the temple to prevent militants from filtering in again.
[On Saturday, Reuter reported, the high priests of the committee ordered Barnala to clean the shoes of devotees for a week as punishment for ordering the raid, and in the interest of reconciliation he agreed.]
Initially the raid was widely acclaimed as a necessary move, but opposition has been snowballing into a split in the ruling Sikh political party, the Akali Dal. The relatively moderate party has represented the main Sikh community in Punjab since the 1920s.
That the head of an Akali government, a chief minister who is himself a deeply religious Sikh, can order armed security men into the shrine seems to be the point of contention.
"Sending cigarette-smoking men into our shrine is hurtful," said Jaskirat Singh, a truck driver in his late twenties at a tea stall in Rajpura, a town about 25 miles from Chandigarh. Sikhs are not allowed to smoke.
Like many other Sikhs, he did not think the sanctity of his temple was ruined by people declaring, from within it, a separate state there.
"We condemn terrorism strongly, but we would like to preserve the sanctity of our temple," said Capt. Amrinder Singh, a minister in the Punjab Cabinet who resigned after the April 30 attack. "We oppose Khalistan and have always opposed it," he said. Two years ago, Singh resigned from the ruling Congress (I) Party after Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the Temple. "Each time a squib [firecracker] is dropped in the temple, you can't send troops in," he said.
Singh and two other ministers and 24 legislators resigned from the Punjab Cabinet in a split from the main body of the Akali Dal. As a result, the Sikh party in the state is now in a minority, with 46 seats in a house of 117, forcing Chief Minister Barnala to rely on support from the rival Congress (I) Party to stay in power.
Barnala has been assured of support from the Congress and other opposition parties. But for many Sikhs in Punjab, his government carries no legitimacy because it has become too closely allied with New Delhi.
If the state government remains unpopular, neither has the breakaway group demonstrated mass support.
A call for a general strike by the militant Sikh Students' Federation to protest the latest temple entry evoked little response in the state. This was in sharp contrast to overwhelming public reaction against the June 1984 storming of the Golden Temple, known as "Operation Bluestar."
"'Bluestar' was directed against the Sikh community," said Balwant Singh, Punjab's finance minister. "In this case, we were naturally very keen to take back possession of the temple. So the police were used to free the temple.
"We have no objection to the temple management committee building up its own security service," he said, "but terrorists cannot be allowed to take control of the place."
Both ruling and dissident Akali factions have begun "mass contact" programs within the state to win support for their points of view, raising fears of more violence in the days leading up to the anniversary of the original June 5 Golden Temple attack.