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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 23:15 GMT
The fading of Sikh militancy

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi - killed by her Sikh bodyguards

Times change. The verdict in Canada following the destruction of an Air India jumbo jet over the Atlantic in 1985 is a reminder of the extent of Sikh militancy in India at the time.

Several thousand people died in nearly 10 years of militancy - and India's Sikhs effectively became alienated from mainstream society.

In a series of events that that shocked the nation, the Congress government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent troops into the Sikhs' sacred shrine - the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar - to flush out the militants holed up there.

A few months later, in October 1984, Mrs Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. Her death triggered riots in which, according to official figures, more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed by rioting mobs.

But now, over two decades after it all began, the divide between Sikhs, who make up 3% of India's population, and Hindus has been bridged and the antagonism with the Congress party largely disappeared.

'Different realities'

The elevation last year of Manmohan Singh as India's first Sikh prime minister was the culmination in the changing relations.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale
The face of Sikh militancy in the 1980s Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

"The alienation between the Sikhs and Congress is a distant memory now. The ground realities are very different today," analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told the BBC News website as Mr Singh took office.

There are many Sikhs who still feel bitter about the way they were targeted after Mrs Gandhi's assassination and the inaction, or complicity of Congress politicians as the riots developed.

But the deep distrust that once existed between the community and the party no longer exists.

One reason is the sheer length of time which has elapsed since the horrific riots of 1984, when Sikhs were singled out to be lynched and torched to death in public.

"Time is a great healer, and it has done the same to the relationship between Congress and the Sikhs," Punjab-based political scientist Professor PS Verma told the BBC.

Losing steam

The wounds have been actually healing over the last decade.

India has had a Sikh president and a home minister, both with roots in the Congress party since Mrs Gandhi's assassination.

The antagonism between the Sikhs the Gandhi family lost some of its steam. This is perhaps in part because no member of India's first family participated in active politics between 1991, after the killing of Rajiv Gandhi and 1998, when Sonia Gandhi became the Congress party chief.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi helped reconcile the Sikhs and Congress

Interestingly, the Congress' fortunes began picking up in the early 1990s in the Punjab, - the northern Sikh majority state which had been the epicentre of the separatist militancy.

This was despite the overwhelming dominance of Punjab's regional Akali Dal party, which has been consistently critical of what they describe as the Congress' "insensitivity and mistreatment" of the Sikhs.

In 1993, barely a decade after the anti-Sikh riots, the Congress swept the village council polls in Punjab - the turnout of voters was as high as 82%.

Six years later, in the 1999 general elections, the Congress party led in Punjab over its formidable Akali Dal rivals.

Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi also played her role in the reconciliation process.

After taking charge of the party in 1998, she went around Sikh places of worship - gurdwaras - in Delhi apologising for the riots.

"I feel this kind of incident should not have happened," Mrs Gandhi told the Sikhs.

"And my husband Rajiv Gandhi felt the same."

Community and Congress

Two years ago, the Congress convincingly won the state elections in Punjab, dislodging the Akali Dal from power. The state continues to have a Congress-led government.

Sikh devotees in Amritsar
Sikh devotees in Amritsar

"The Congress was not an untouchable any more for the vast majority of Sikhs, as it was for many years after the raid on the holiest shrine," said analyst Yogendra Yadav.

"The election also signalled a return to normal politics in Punjab, where questions of development and interest fulfilment were taking centre stage - thus displacing questions of identity, alienation and terrorism that dominated its politics for well over a decade."

Surveys reveal that Sikhs in the capital Delhi, which saw most of the rioting in 1984 and has a substantially large community population, began voting for the Congress heavily from the 1998 general elections onwards.

So much so that in the recent general elections, Congress mopped up six of the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi.

This was despite the fact that the party had fielded two candidates, including a former minister, who were indicted for their involvement in the riots, and later acquitted by the courts.

In fact, Punjab's Akali Dal party had appealed to all Sikhs in the Congress to quit the party as it was "brutally insensitive" and insulted the Sikhs by deciding to field the two candidates who were "the butchers of innocent Sikhs".

The Akali Dal's campaign is not entirely political rhetoric - it reflects the sentiments of a smaller section of Sikhs who still remain bitter with the Congress and feel that it did not do enough to punish the rioters.

Manmohan Singh's appointment as prime minister will continue to further bridge the gap between the community and the Congress, analysts believe.

Once again, time will tell.


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