Sikh Gunmen Kill 24 Hindus, Wound 7 on Punjab Bus

Times Staff Writer

Sikh terrorists killed 24 Hindu passengers on a public bus Sunday in the Indian state of Punjab and wounded seven before fleeing on motor scooters, police officials reported.

The massacre took place near Khuda in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, the setting for a bloody Sikh separatist movement during the last five years. The killings recalled a similar episode in July, when 15 people were killed on a public bus in Muktsar, also in Punjab.

Worst This Year

In Sunday's attack, the worst single terrorist incident in Punjab this year, police officials said four Sikh terrorists armed with pistols and automatic weapons ordered all Hindu passengers off a public bus. They then opened fire on the descending passengers.

In the Muktsar assault four months ago, the killers ordered the Sikh passengers to leave the bus and then opened fire on the Hindus remaining inside. Like the Muktsar attack, Sunday's incident appeared to have been aimed at creating divisions between the Sikh and Hindu populations.

In an emotional statement Sunday night, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi expressed sympathy for the "sorrowing mothers, fathers, wives and children of the victims."

"I am with them in this moment of grief, and I resolve with them not to rest until we have conquered the evil designs of disruptive forces," Gandhi said. He also called the attack a "grave provocation to secularism, love and brotherhood, the basic principles of new, resurgent India."

Escalation of Violence

In his annual Independence Day speech in August, Gandhi contended that Indian police and paramilitary units had the Sikh separatists on the run in Punjab. Since that time, however, the state has seen steadily escalating violence.

Sikhs, all of whom bear the name Singh (Lion), are members of a 500-year-old reform sect. Sikh men are identifiable by the beards and turbans required by their faith. Five years ago, fundamentalist elements in the Sikh community began pressing for a separate homeland, to be called Khalistan, in the area that is now the Indian Punjab.

Nearly 9 million of India's 15 million Sikhs live in Punjab, India's richest agricultural state. The remaining Sikh population is scattered throughout this nation of more than 700 million, including 1 million in New Delhi.

Driving Out Hindus

The terrorists' goal has been to force Sikhs living outside Punjab to move there, while driving out the state's 6 million Hindus.

Already, several thousand Hindu refugees from Punjab live in New Delhi.

After the Muktsar killings in July, five people were killed in Hindu-Sikh rioting in western New Delhi, where most of Punjab's Hindu refugees live.

New Delhi police were put on full alert Sunday night, with patrols being increased in the sectors of past rioting.

Meanwhile, Punjab Gov. S.S. Ray called for restraint in the state by Hindus and Sikhs in the wake of what he called an "act of madness."

In the last 11 months, according to Punjab's police director, Julius Ribeiro, more than 450 people have been killed in sectarian strife in Punjab, including more than 400 civilians.

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