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Religious Tensions Run High In India's Punjab State

A daylong general strike called by Sikh religious leaders has shut down activity in India's northern state of Punjab, a Sikh majority region. Anjana Pasricha reports that the strike was ordered after tensions escalated between the Sikh community and another Punjab-based religious sect.

Schools, shops and businesses shut down across Punjab as thousands of paramilitary forces and policemen fanned out Tuesday in the northern state, where religious tensions are running high.

Sikh leaders are demanding an apology from the leader of a Punjab-based religious sect, who posed for newspaper advertisements dressed up as a revered 17th century Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Protests by outraged Sikhs have engulfed the state since the controversy began last week. Angry Sikh leaders say Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, has insulted their religion. They have blocked highways, and clashed with Dera supporters. Security was stepped up after one person was killed and many were injured.

The state's political leadership has joined Sikh religious leaders in calling for an apology.

However, the state's Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal says law and order should not be disturbed.

He has called for calm, and says the government is determined to maintain peace at all costs.

Although Punjab remained calm during the daylong shutdown, sporadic protests by Sikhs were reported on Tuesday in two neighboring regions, Haryana and Jammu.

A spokesman for the Dera sect, Aditya Insaan, has said the leader did not mean to offend Sikhs when he dressed up as a Sikh guru.

"We have expressed our sincere and heartfelt regrets on several occasions in front of the media," said Insaan. "If an effort is not made to understand the full import of whatever we have tried to convey and it is transformed into a battle of semantics, then I think we have not been understood."

But the failure of the Dera leader to issue an outright apology has angered Sikhs, and prompted a demand for a shutdown of all branches of the sect in the state.

The Dera Sacha Sauda calls itself a spiritual, humanitarian organization and says its followers are drawn from all religions.

Analysts say the government should watch out for wider violence in a state that was engulfed in a violent insurgency in the 1980s and 90s by Sikhs seeking an independent homeland.

Punjab is India's only Sikh majority state.