Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in a surprise move during a Cabinet reshuffle Monday, promoted a Sikh who has been ostracized by his community to the nation’s top security post.
Gandhi, who has faced a Sikh separatist rebellion in Punjab state, moved Agriculture Minister Buta Singh to the Home Ministry, which is responsible for the police.
Sikh religious leaders have blamed Buta Singh for the June, 1984, army assault on the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Sikh religion’s most sacred shrine.
After the attack, aimed at flushing out extremists from the shrine, he was declared a sinner and Sikhs were ordered to ostracize him, the first step to full excommunication.
In his appointment Monday, Buta Singh replaced veteran politician P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was named home minister only two months ago. Rao remained in the Cabinet as human resources minister.
Foreign Minister Replaced
Gandhi named 12 new ministers in the reshuffle, dropping External Affairs Minister Bali Ram Bhagat, who was replaced by Commerce Minister P. Shiv Shankar. Shankar retained the commerce portfolio.
Shankar, named to the Cabinet only four months ago, is a former lawyer from southern Andhra Pradesh state. Earlier, he served as Gandhi’s special envoy on overseas assignments.
Official sources said that Bhagat’s ouster less than eight months after he took over the External Affairs Ministry appears to reflect Gandhi’s unhappiness over his handling of diplomatic issues.
Notably, in February, Bhagat accused the government of neighboring Sri Lanka of committing genocide against the island’s minority Tamils. This provoked hostility from the Sri Lankan majority Sinhalese government, with whom India had worked to negotiate a now-broken Tamil cease-fire and plan for regional autonomy.
A senior Home Ministry official said that Buta Singh’s appointment would strengthen Gandhi’s cousin, Arun Nehru, the minister of state for internal security, a sub-Cabinet position.
The official said that Buta Singh will not be able to deal with the Sikh unrest in Punjab, one of India’s worst domestic problems, because Sikh leaders will not talk to him.
Therefore, he went on, control of the Punjab crisis will effectively pass to Nehru, one of several young aides placed in key posts by Gandhi since he took over from his assassinated mother, Indira Gandhi, in October, 1984.
Gandhi brought another Sikh, Gurdial Singh Dhillon, former Speaker of the lower house of Parliament, into the Cabinet to replace Buta Singh as agriculture minister.
Gandhi also named new ministers from the key states of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir to broaden their representation in the central government.
He appointed Mohammed Said, who headed Gandhi’s Congress-I Party in Jammu and Kashmir, as tourism minister.