Indian troops sent to quell Sikh unrest
Bruce Loudon, South Asia correspondent
May 19, 2007
THOUSANDS of Indian troops were rushing to north Indian states last night to tackle the most serious Sikh uprising in decades.
The deployment came as a bomb tore through one of India's oldest and biggest mosques, killing five people and wounding 24 others as thousands of worshippers attended prayers.
The bomb was thought to have been placed inside a water tank in the southern city of Hyderabad's historic Mecca mosque. Two other devices were defused following the explosion.
Commandos from the Rapid Action Force were among those deployed to the north after days of unrest and violence between the majority Sikhs and members of a prominent religious sect, the Dera Sacha Sauda.
The unrest is believed to have a political dimension linked to elements of the Khalistan movement for a Sikh homeland that set the region ablaze more than 20 years ago, as well as controversial support by the sect for the Congress party in a recent state assembly election.
The first fatalities and injuries were reported yesterday as reinforcements were sent to Punjab and Haryana states near New Delhi, as well as western areas of the capital, which has large Sikh communities.
Troops were reported staging flag marches through some cities and towns to try to put off potential rioters.
As tens of thousands of angry Sikhs besieged ashrams and other buildings belonging to the DSS amid fears of a full-scale conflict, Home Minister Shivraj Patil summoned an emergency meeting of security officials and sent in the reinforcements.
Up to 25,000 Sikhs armed with swords and bricks were said to have surrounded a DSS campus near Salabetpura, in Punjab, as police and troops tried to separate them. At Sirsa, in Haryana state, tens of thousands of DSS were said to have mobilised to face down an advancing column of Sikhs determined to attack them.
"The situation is very grave. There is the threat of major violence," one senior security official said last night.
Reports claimed that supporters of a Khalistan independent Sikh homeland who were behind the storming of Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in 1984 and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi were in the vanguard of the attacks on the DSS.
But the immediate cause of the upsurge in communal tensions is an ultimatum from Sikh leaders to the state Government in Punjab to take action against the DSS for alleged anti-Sikh activities.
This follows fury after the leader of the DSS, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, appeared dressed as revered Sikh guru Gobind Singh in a newspaper advertisement.
It sparked two days of fierce clashes between DSS and Sikh followers.
Analysts equated the upheaval with similar clashes between the Nirnkari religious sect and other Sikh organisations in 1980.
Those clashes are regarded as the starting point for 15 years of violence and militancy in Punjab and Haryana.
Adding significantly to the current conflict is a directive, in the recent Punjab state election, given by the DSS leader to his followers to vote for the Congress party.
Congress lost the election, and the DSS support for the party enraged the winners, the Shriomani Akali Dal, which is made up mainly of nationalistic Sikhs.