Assam turns the tables on India by adopting civil disobedience tactics

In one history's ironic twists, residents of the troubled northeastern Indian state of Assam are turning the tactics that won India its independence from Britain against their own government.

In the largest mass movement since the civil disobedience and "Quit India" drives led by Mahatma Gandhi, Assamese are picketing, stopping work, and courting arrest by the thousands.

The aim of their largely nonviolent protest, now in its 10th month, is to force the government to deal with the waves of foreign immigrants that have upset the ethnic, cultural, economic, and political balance throughout the state and much of the turbulent northeastern region.

Assam's student-led protest against "foreigners" -- mostly Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh -- is costing India $5 million a day in oil bills and bedeviling Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government with its gravest domestic challenge. Assam normally produces one-third of India's domestic oil output, but protesters' blockades have halted the oil flow to the Indian heartland.

Most threatening are its reverberations throughout the strategically located northeastern region, wedged between Burma, Bangladesh, and China and connected to heartland India by only a narrow neck of land.

The Assam movement has kindled northeastern resentments against "foreigners" seen to be swamping native cultures, land rights, and job opportunities. It has touched off violent retaliations against outsiders: In Tripura 1st month 1,000 Bengali settlers were massacred by displaced tribesman.

Small but outright secessionist rebellions are being fought by armed bands in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Although the separatist sentiment is not widespread, New Delhi is smarting under open criticism of its yers of economic neglect of the region and its lightweight border security policies that allowed the refugee tides to flow in.

The number of immigrants among Assam's 19 million people is estimated at anywhere from 7000,000 by official data to 4.5 million by the two major protest orgnizations, the All-Assam Students Union and the All-Assam Gana Sangram Parishad. Predominantly middle class protestors -- both young and old, male and female -- are demanding the identification and deportation of foreigners who have come to Assam since 1951.

Last week, in a show of strength, they halted virtually all rail and air transportation in the state for three days. This week they launched two weeks of picketing of state and central government offices, an action that has cut staff attendance by up to 90 percent and brought government operations to a standstill.

Estimates of the lives lost in clashes with security forces and attacks on Bengali settlers range from fewer than 200 to more than 500. Thousands of Bengali refugees reportedly have fled to the Indian state of West Bengal.

Mrs. Gandhi's government has alternated between tough talk of a "firm hand" in dealing with the mass movement and conciliatory language inviting dialogue with the protest organizations. "We want negotiations," Mrs. Gandhi said earlier this month, acknowledging that "many of the grievances of the people of Assam about lack of adequate economic development are genuine."

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