Four gunmen believed to be Sikh terrorists killed 15 unarmed passengers on a bus in India's Punjab state Friday, police and Indian news agencies reported.
At least 14 of the victims were believed to be Hindus, strongly suggesting that the attack was part of an intensified Sikh separatist campaign to polarize the Hindu and Sikh communities.
According to the reports, three men boarded an express bus bound for the Punjab capital of Chandigarh from Muktsar, a town in the Faridkot district of western Punjab. About 10 miles outside of Muktsar, the bus stopped at a railroad crossing and a fourth man boarded.
Shaven Sikh Killed
Brandishing weapons, the four men ordered women, children and members of the Sikh faith, identified by their turbans and full beards, to get off the bus. They then opened fire on the remaining passengers. The dead were reportedly all Hindu males except for one man, who was tentatively identified as a Sikh who had shaved his beard. Seven other men were wounded.
The attack was one of the worst against the Hindu community during the more than five years that the Sikh separatist movement has been active in Punjab, India's richest agricultural state and home for about 9 million Sikhs and 7 million Hindus.
Police imposed a curfew in the Faridkot district.
The attack was promptly condemned in the Indian Parliament and by the moderate Sikh state government in Punjab. The state's five main political parties called for shops and businesses to close today in protest of the slaughter.
The state government, meeting in emergency session in Chandigarh, appealed to the people of Punjab to "remain calm in the face of grave provocation and not to fall into the trap laid by anti-social elements wanting to throw the state into fratricidal bloodshed."
Hindus and Sikhs share many of the same religious practices and have lived together peacefully for centuries in the Punjab region. But the two communities now are targets of a terrorist campaign aimed at driving Hindus out of the state, where extremists want to form a separate Sikh nation to be named Khalistan.
Hindus Moving Away
The intimidation campaign has already resulted in several thousand Punjabi Hindus moving away from some districts, particularly those, such as Faridkot near the Pakistan border, where the separatist drive has been most intense. The turmoil has also strained Pakistani-Indian relations because Indian diplomats on several occasions have blamed Pakistani agents for fomenting the Sikh agitation.
Friday's attack came at a time of great political instability in Punjab and reflected what has been a steady unraveling of a peace accord signed between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sikh leaders a year ago.
Sikh ranks are now divided into parties of varying militancy. Such fragmentation has often resulted in the Sikhs' inability to effectively lead a government.
After a bitter split in the moderate Sikh Akali Dal political party two months ago, the moderate Sikh state government of Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala is now a minority, holding only 47 of the 117 seats in the Punjab Assembly. The Barnala government has alienated some elements in the Sikh community by supporting a police anti-terrorist campaign in the state, which critics charge involves harassment of Sikhs.
Hindu Groups Militant
Reacting to growing Sikh separatist activity, Hindu political organizations in the state have become increasingly strident in defense of their faith against Sikh attacks.
Meanwhile, Gandhi's Congress-I party--arguably the largest party in the state following the Sikh political splits--is under mounting pressure from its members to wrest control of the state government from moderate Sikhs.
If that were to happen, even though it would benefit an arm of his party, Gandhi would lose the main accomplishment of last year's Punjab peace accord: the establishment of a functioning state government to deflect Sikh attacks from the central government in New Delhi.
Perhaps with this in mind, Gandhi has recently gone out of his way to praise the Barnala government in Punjab.