NEW DELHI — The government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took its first steps this week toward easing India's most agonizing internal problem--the bitter alienation of its economically vital Sikh population.
The country's 16 million members of the Sikh faith, nearly half of whom live in agriculturally rich Punjab state now under control of the Indian army, are politically isolated and in turmoil after two bloody incidents last year: the army's storming in June of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the violent aftermath to Indira Gandhi's assassination Oct. 31 by two Sikh members of her personal security guard.
Privately, the prime minister has described the Sikh crisis as his most difficult domestic challenge. Campaigning in national and state elections, he promised to move quickly on the Punjab problem, once his ruling Congress-I Party was installed in Parliament and a majority of the state assemblies.
With the elections completed last week, Gandhi on Tuesday freed from jail eight leaders of the Sikh Akali Dal political party, including the Akali Dal president, Harchand Singh Longowal. On Thursday, he briefed Congress Party members of Parliament about the Punjab situation saying:
"We have to see that normality gets back in the state so we can withdraw the army . . . and install a popular government."
Punjab Voting Suspended
The Indian army has been deployed in Punjab since the storming of the Golden Temple. Parliamentary and local elections were both suspended in Punjab because of the crisis, and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 mostly youthful activists in the state have been jailed.
Gandhi also announced the appointment of Arjun Singh, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, to be governor of Punjab. Singh is respected as an able administrator despite criticism of his performance during the Union Carbide gas leak tragedy in Madhya Pradesh. Because Punjab is technically under its governor's rule, Singh will have wide-ranging authority in the state.
Describing the release of the Akali Dal leaders as a "concrete gesture," Home Minister S.B. Chavan said, "The government has taken the first positive step and now the ball is in the Akali Dal's court."
Moreover, Gandhi government leaders, in public and private statements, displayed willingness to be flexible on other issues pressed by Sikh leaders. In his briefing for his party's parliamentary leaders, Gandhi even said that the controversial 1973 Anandpur Resolution adopted by Akali Dal leaders seeking greater autonomy for Sikhs in Punjab might be acceptable, if certain provisions are deleted.
Among other things, the Anandpur Resolution, called a Sikh bill of rights by its sponsors, demands that "atheism and un-Sikh thinking" be removed from the state and that the role of the central Indian government be limited in Punjab to "defense, foreign relations, communications, railways and currency."
Meanwhile, Home Minister Chavan was quoted in the Calcutta Telegraph newspaper as saying that the government might even consider conducting a judicial inquiry into anti-Sikh rioting that took place after Indira Gandhi's assassination, an inquiry that is being urged by nearly all Sikh leaders. Such an inquiry might prove embarrassing to Gandhi's Congress-I Party because some low-ranking party leaders are alleged to have been instigators of mob violence that left at least 1,500 Sikhs dead.
It is still not certain how the fragmented Sikh leadership will react to the government gestures.
Some Still Jailed
Despite release of the eight Akali leaders, two others, Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Prakash Singh Badal, remain in jail. "The release of the Akali Dal (eight) has been very selective and designed to create further factions," said Kushwant Singh, a Sikh historian and member of the upper house of Parliament.
But Beant Singh, former chief minister of Punjab, responded to the Gandhi peace moves as a positive sign. He urged the Akali leaders to respond with concessions of their own.
Some observers believe that the situation in Punjab has deteriorated to a point where political moderation and compromise are no longer possible.