One of India's leading politicians, Beant Singh, chief minister of Punjab state, was killed along with 12 others yesterday in a car bomb explosion. A crucial ally of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, the chief minister had been responsible for helping to crush Sikh separatist gangs and restore peace in the troubled Punjab.
The bomb exploded in the state capital, Chandigarh, just seconds after the chief minister, surrounded by armed commandos, climbed into his bullet- proof limousine after a day at his office. Mr Singh,73, died instantly in the blast.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the chief minister's assassination. Police are investigating the possibility that he might have been killed by Sikh terrorists.
Mr Singh was respected by many Punjabis for bringing peace to the state, which since the early 1980s had been wracked by terrorism and armed militancy. But nearly as many Punjabis despised Mr Singh, himself a Sikh, for using extreme brutality in stamping out the separatist revolt among members of the Sikh community, who form a majority in this rich farming state.
In New Delhi, police were put on "a high state of alert". The killing was condemned by the government and all opposition parties. The President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, described the assassination as "a cowardly and heinous act". A former prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, lamented: "How long must this country go on suffering such acts of revenge and violence?''
The odds were high against Mr Singh succeeding in pacifying Punjab when he took over as chief minister in February 1992. Sikhs in Punjab had hated the Congress party, to which Mr Singh belonged, ever since Indira Gandhi ordered an army assault on militants hiding inside the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
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