Sikh high priests Wednesday excommunicated Punjab Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala for defying a holy edict to resign and merge his moderate Akali Dal party with militant breakaway factions.
The edict was read to a cheering throng of about 2,000 at the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Sikhs were ordered to shun Barnala, oppose his actions and prevent him from making speeches.
The excommunication order, only the fourth issued since the religion was founded in 1499, also bars Barnala from entering Sikh temples.
Ordered to Appear
The order was announced shortly after the expiration of a deadline for Barnala to appear before the priests to explain his rejection of their Feb. 3 order to quit and dissolve the Akali Dal (Party of the Immortals) so it can be reunited with rival militant factions in a new religious party.
In the state capital of Chandigarh, 150 miles southeast of Amritsar, about 1,000 Sikhs rallied at Barnala's home to demonstrate support for him in the confrontation that has created deep divisions among political and religious leaders of India's 16 million Sikhs.
Barnala told reporters he will remain in office, but he expressed no resentment toward the high priests.
"This is their job," he said. "They have done it."
Normally, excommunication would have brought Barnala's ouster as Punjab state chief minister and president of the Akali Dal, formed 70 years ago as the political arm of the supreme Sikh temple management committee.
But Akali Dal legislators earlier this week declared support for their leader, endorsing his refusal to resign and rejecting a directive that they pledge their allegiance to the new party.
Named by Militants
The legislators and other moderate Sikhs have charged that the men appointed by the priests as leaders of the new organization are aligned with Sikh extremists who have killed hundreds of people in fighting to make India's Sikh-dominated Punjab state an independent nation, which they call Khalistan. The priests were named to their posts after Akali Dal militants gained control of the temple management committee in November.
Barnala angered many Sikhs last April when he allowed police to enter the Golden Temple complex to sweep out armed extremists.
Support for Barnala within moderate Sikh circles has been growing. Prominent Sikhs have criticized the priests for their involvement in politics and backed Barnala in his defiance of the order.
The directive "is a gross violation of the Sikh tradition and is damaging to the Sikh institutions," said an advertisement taken out in a major newspaper Wednesday by the New Delhi chapter of the temple management committee. "We . . . make an earnest appeal to all well-meaning Sikhs to lend their unqualified support to . . . Barnala."