Centuries of interreligious strife preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

It has been said that those who are willing to die for their religion also are prepared to kill for it. Some cite the interreligious strife in India as proof of this maxim.

Decades-old violence there between Sikhs and Hindus reached new heights following the recent assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh members of her bodyguard. Hundreds of Sikhs died and thousands were left homeless in the wave of Hindu vengeance that swept the country, particularly the state of Punjab where Sikhs constitute a majority.

The violence tested once again the fragile democracy in a country that is home to some 2,000 ethno-religious communities. The ingredients in India’s melting pot have never melted, making ethnic and religious conflict virtually inevitable.

Sikhs make up just 2 percent of India’s 750 million people. However, they hold a disproportionately high number of important positions in Indian business, government, and especially in the military. Punjab, considered the country’s breadbasket, is India’s most productive state. Observers attribute this not to natural resources, but to human resources—the ingenuity and energy of the Punjabi people, particularly Sikhs.

The religion of the Sikhs is closely tied to their identity as a people. That religion, which emerged nearly 500 years ago, combines elements of Hinduism and Islam. Unlike Hindus, Sikhs are monotheists who in theory reject the worship of idols. The Sikh ideal stands against the caste system, though Sikhs generally have been unable to work this out in practice. Unlike Muslims, Sikhs believe in reincarnation. They seek a sort of “love union” with God by meditating on his ...

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