Carrying their rifles, supporters of Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale, walk barefoot through the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, India, May, 12, 1984. (AP Photo)

Punjab, the state in northwest India where most of the country’s Sikhs live, is in a bloody mess. Last spring Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s central government took control of Punjab, declaring that the Sikh-dominated state government had failed to hold the line against Sikh militants fighting for a separate homeland. Paramilitary forces were increased; restrictions on citizens’ rights were tightened. The result: the killings rose. In 1987,1,230 people were gunned down in Punjab. This year the number of killings already stands at nearly 1,400.

The situation is not one of utter panic. The fields are still being tended, except on farms where whole families have been killed or forced to flee by gunmen. During the day the roads are still choked with the traffic of various centuries: bullock carts, bicycle rickshaws, water buffalo, mini-vans, tractors, and the ever present green trucks of the police and paramilitary. Stores remain open—even liquor vendors, the perennial targets of the militants (fundamentalist Sikhs condemn alcohol consumption).

Historically, invaders from the north and west have had to cross Punjab to get to the rest of India, and Punjabis have developed a certain comfort with weapons and violence. In one ten-block stretch of Amritsar there are five shops specializing in “Guns and Ammo.” Even before the terrorism began, the state had the highest murder rate in India.

But fear is there. It’s not just the number of murders people fear, but the seeming randomness of the attacks. Gunmen commonly spray busy street-sides with bullets. Furthermore—this is what American press reports don’t prepare you for—it’s not just the terrorists people are afraid of; it’s also the police and paramilitary. This is one reason the government is losing the war against the terrorists.

The government did win a major battle in May. For some time hundreds of well-armed militants had been living inside the Golden Temple complex of Amritsar, the Vatican of Sikhdom. This allowed them to force their views on the resident Sikh high priests who formulate the religious and political edicts of the faith. It was also a powerful symbol of defiance to the Gandhi government. On May 9 a militant inside the temple shot and seriously wounded a security officer. That sparked a siege during which government security personnel surrounded the complex, cut off all supplies, and engaged in gun battles. Several days later the last of the militants inside the temple surrendered.

What made the siege remarkable was the government’s restraint. Though a number of militants were killed, there was little damage to the sacred shrine, and were no civilian casualties. In June 1984, when the Indian army faced a similar force of Sikh militants inside the temple, it blasted its way into the complex with tanks, demolishing a revered gold-domed building, the Akal Tacht, the supreme seat of Sikh religious authority. A library that contained sacred Sikh scriptures written by the gurus who founded the religion 400 years ago also went up in flames. Worst of all, hundreds of innocent Sikh worshipers were killed—some, according to a well-documented book by two BBC journalists, by summary execution.

The army’s 1984 excesses fueled Sikh outrage and weakened the case of moderate Sikhs who advise cooperation with the government. The moderates’ work is rendered especially admirable by the militants’ practice of gunning down Sikhs who speak out against them. Even Sikh moderates, though, hype the “threat” that India’s secular democracy poses to Sikh religious identity.

The vast majority of Sikhs don’t support the terrorists or share their desire to secede from India. But nearly all Sikhs have grievances against the government in New Delhi. In 1984 Hindu rioters in New Delhi butchered thousands of innocent Sikhs in retaliation for the killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard. The government’s own commission of inquiry found that the riots were organized with help from members of Gandhi’s ruling Congress (I) Party. Most of the organizers have yet to be tried. There are political grievances too, such as the government’s program of constructing canals to divert local river waters (a major source of Punjab’s famous agricultural abundance) to drier neighboring states.

In July 1985 Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord with the prominent Sikh moderate leader Sant Harchand Singh Lonowal. The accord took courage, and Lonowal paid for his: Sikh extremists assassinated him. The accord then bogged down. The terrorists’ ranks and the killings, which had decreased in 1985, began climbing again.

The government insists that its fight is only with the militants, not the Sikhs—a people who, until a few years ago, were widely admired throughout India. But the cultural defamation and the disregard for innocent lives convince many Sikhs otherwise. At the very least, most Sikhs (and many non-Sikhs) believe that for political reasons the government is purposely mishandling the terrorist problem to keep the crisis going. India is 80 percent Hindu, yet Gandhi—a Hindu—has been losing popular support. A violent religious minority threatening public safety and national unity might lead Hindu voters to rally around him.

Inderjit Kaur, a Sikh mother of four, was one of the worshipers trapped in the Golden Temple during the 1984 raid. Found barely alive, with two bullets in her body, she was taken to a nearby hospital. While recuperating, her name was entered in the official government records as one of the “innocent civilians injured during the army action,”
according to the newsmagazine India Today. Nevertheless, Kaur was later taken to a jail in the city of Jodhpur. There, she and 365 other Sikhs were kept, on vague charges, for almost four years. The “Jodhpur déténus,” as they are known, became a cause celebre with international groups such as Amnesty International as well as among Sikhs, both extremist and moderate. The government used the déténus as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Sikh political and militant leaders, treating innocent civilians as political bait. Last March, as part of a larger peace initiative, the government released Inderjit Kaur and 39 other déténus. Over 300 remain in jail.

I heard numerous bitter accusations of torture at the hands of security personnel. A journalist in Amritsar who had just visited a nearby jail told us he saw inmates covered with welts. In 1986 a commission sponsored by the state government and headed by a respected former judge looked into reports of torture of Sikhs at an interrogation center in the Patiala district of Punjab. The commission concluded that the reports were true: tactics included the use of electric shocks, fecal matter, and wooden logs that cause great pain, but leave no marks, when rolled across the thighs.

Another practice that does not fill the average Sikh with affection for his government is the so-called “fake encounter”: deliberate killings of suspected terrorists during staged incidents or after capture. The government denies that its forces engage in such tactics. But another 1986 government-sponsored commission found that almost all of the 35 “encounters” it investigated were “faked.” Plenty of the victims are ruthless terrorists whom the government would have trouble prosecuting (the terrorists routinely intimidate witnesses from testifying against them). But such tactics naturally alienate Sikhs. Ashok Singh Bhai, who runs the Sikh Institute in Chandigarh, the Punjab capital, showed me a recent newspaper headline: “12 TERRORISTS KILLED IN PUNJAB, THREE POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED.” “If the police can’t identify whom they’ve killed,” complains Bhai, “how do they know they are terrorists?”

The security forces are trying to do a difficult job in rooting out Sikh militants, and they have the dead troops to prove it. But corruption within the forces, especially among the local police, undermines much of that hard-earned legitimacy. Dr. Shavinder Kaur Jauhal, a Sikh pediatrician from Ferozpur, complained: “The police take bribes. They arrest young men and demand 1,000 rupies for their release. If their families can’t pay, the boys are killed.” Police harassment, according to India Today, “has become a way of extorting money by force that has virtually no checks on it now. ” The Gandhi-appointed puppet governor of Punjab, S. S. Ray, receives hundreds of petitions each day about false arrests and disappearances of innocent people. (Describing his attempts to get close to the people of the state, Ray once said, “I have played tennis in every district in the Punjab.”)

The press in India only occasionally takes on the central government’s repression. American reporters in India almost never do. In April a pro-militant journalist was arrested for doing what a hundred other more objective journalists have done: interviewing terrorists inside the Golden Temple.

An impediment to the press is the lack of reliable, objective viewpoints. The politics of Punjab is a morass; people who criticize government actions, or defend them, usually do so to advance complicated religious or political agendas that have decades- or even centuries-old roots in Punjab history. I was introduced to a Sikh “civil rights” lawyer who said his clients were 300 innocent young Sikh men currently in jail. How did he know they were innocent? I asked. Because, he responded, no one could be found to testify against them. Pointing out that terrorists have been known to intimidate witnesses, I asked if his clients had killed anyone. “Oh yes,” he said, “but only enemies of the Sikhs.” When asked who these enemies are, the lawyer offered as an example “Nirankaris.” Nirankaris are followers of a peaceful sect of Sikhism that orthodox Sikhs consider heretical. The militants have been gunning them down for several years.

Two weeks before the recent siege, my wife and I went to the Golden Temple to talk with one of the militants’ chief spokesmen, Nirvair Singh. He is a leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, one of several armed groups fighting the government. It was evening when we took off our shoes and entered the temple complex. The marble tiles underfoot were still warm from the sun. We could see the temple sitting on an island in the middle of a large pool, its golden image shimmering on the surface of the water. As we moved along the tiled walkway that surrounds the pool we could hear the amplified voices of chanters inside the temple singing ethereal hymns from Sikh scripture. Along the walkways we saw young men wearing blankets across their chests, with rifle barrels poking out of the top.

We were ushered into a room where Nirvair Singh—tall and handsome, in his 30s—stood among a dozen younger bearded-and-turbaned men. Behind them on the wall was
a banner that read “Khalistan Zindabad”—long live Khalistan. Khalistan is the name of the Sikh nation the militants wish to create. “Like others, we are fighting a war of freedom,” Singh declared, “because people of every community have a right to have a place where they can feel free.” Asked how free Hindus and Muslims would be in a Sikh-controlled state, Singh insisted that people of all religions would be able to worship as they please. We then broached the subject of the killing of innocent people. The butchering of entire Sikh families is a gruesome trend that began last fall. Police, of course, blame the militants, who they say are slaughtering families suspected of cooperating with the security forces. Singh, however, claimed that “no true Sikh would kill women and children.” Who, then, is doing the killing? “The government,” Singh responded. “They have Sikhs killed by hired assassins and we are being blamed.”

The “hired assassins” line may sound farfetched, but it is believed by large numbers of non-militant Sikhs, and it’s taken seriously by many I talked to: from moderate Sikh intellectuals and journalists to a Western diplomat specializing in the politics of Punjab. They say the police, paramilitary, and Indian intelligence have organized ex-militants, smugglers, and other criminals willing to kill for money, into an army to hunt down the militants, their families, and other collaborators. In return, the gangs get the freedom to commit money-making crimes unimpeded by the government. After denying this for months, the government recently admitted it had financed and armed one such group. It has not admitted the group killed innocent families, only that the project “went out of hand” and had to be disbanded.

Proof of government complicity in these killings, if it exists, is certainly hard to come by. Steven Weisman, the New York Times’s New Delhi correspondent, told me he went to the village where one of these government “death squad” killings allegedly occurred. The villagers he interviewed gave such wildly different versions of the events— some insisting the killings didn’t even take place in their village—that he gave up on the story.

The killing of families remains a mystery, but it is understandable why the Sikhs put the government on their list of suspects, right beside the militants. If a solution to the terrorist menace in Punjab still exists, it undoubtedly includes the kind of courageous political settlement Rajiv Gandhi tried to bring about in 1985. But such settlements require trust; and with his own security forces jailing, torturing, ransoming, and killing innocent people, the prime minister these days is running a bit short on trust.

Republished with permission of The New Republic.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.