A political strike protesting the continuing violence in the Punjab brought commerce and industry to a total halt in the Indian capital today, but Delhi saw little of the clashes that have led to six deaths and scores of injuries during the past three days.
Police reported scattered clashes with gangs of young men in troubled areas of the city and resorted on a couple of occasions to firing warning shots and tear gas, but no serious injuries were reported.
The strike, called by the Bharatiya Janata Party, had worried city and national officials that it could spark widespread confrontations. Extra police were brought to the capital from other states, and the Army remained on alert. Several areas of the city remained under a total curfew.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has widespread support among Hindus in the Delhi area, and its strike call brought shutters down on shops across the city. Traffic in normally congested Connaught Place and the old walled city was light today.
In Parliament, where the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has come under increasing pressure to take action against violence by Sikh extremists, the prime minister took the floor during a special debate on the Punjab to warn those resorting to violence that their acts would not be tolerated, but essentially to stick to his policy of working for a settlement with elected officials in the Punjab.
The challenge in the Punjab is "squarely one for the state government" to handle, the prime minister declared. "Nothing should be allowed to endanger our independence or unity."
Shortly after taking over following the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, the prime minister began a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the increasing demands of militant Sikhs for an independent homeland, or Khalistan.
He negotiated the terms for a compromise solution to Sikh demands for greater autonomy and also called for new elections in the Punjab that paved the way for a Sikh state government to replace one held by his Congress Party. This effectively put responsibility for the future of the Punjab in the hands of a Sikh government elected under the existing political order and put some distance between his government in Delhi and India's most pressing political issue.
The Punjab accord reached a year ago has faltered, however, and militant Sikhs have been turning increasingly toward terrorist actions directed at Hindus.
Although leaving the policy intact, Gandhi nevertheless had words of warning. Saying he would not allow an independent Sikh homeland "under any circumstance," Gandhi added, "we can't allow forces of destabilization to weaken our nation."