Assam's new government is too weak to stem unrest

Since the February election in India's Assam state, violence has continued, and the task of the newly elected state government would appear to be impossible.

The presence of government troops has maintained order on the surface, but among Assamese groups, a more militant leadership is coming forward. The potential for further violence remains strong.

Indeed, since the election, the number of Bengali attacks on Assamese villages has increased appreciably. The past two months have brought a rising death toll, while more than 300,000 are homeless and 50,000 have fled the state.

The newly elected state government is despised by most Assamese Hindus, who view it as a Bengali creation imposed on their land. (Due to an Assamese boycott , the election turnout in some districts was as low as 3 percent.) Since the election, the state assembly has met only once, and its meeting prompted a statewide 24-hour strike.

The chief minister, Hiteswar Saikia, reportedly told Indian journalists that he feared for his life. His 18-year-old nephew was stabbed to death earlier this month. And many of his ministers and legislators refuse to leave their residences unless under heavy police-military guard. The state's civil servants, most of whom sympathize with the agitation leaders, have only desultorily returned to their jobs.

The question of what to do about 4 million ''illegal migrants,'' mostly Bengali Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh, is now but one of a number of seemingly irreconcilable issues in a fragmented Assam.

Assam's previously passive tribal groups, characterized by a good-natured, lethargic way of life, have been both perpetrator and victim of some of the most vicious massacres. As their price for subservience, they are again agitating for an independent state. In 1972 the Indian government capitulated to a similar demand when it carved the new states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, and two union territories, out of Assamese land.

The perspective in Assam on what had been seen mainly as an ethnic issue between indigenous Assamese Hindus and immigrant Bengali Muslims - competing for jobs and land - has broadened to communal and linguistic divisions. In the recent violence, the divisions were clearly ethnic and communal. The Assamese, the tribals, and the Bengalis are all in a state of war.

Leaders of the All-Assam Students' Union, which has led the anti-foreign agitation for the last four years, have announced that they will temporarily suspend their agitation and turn their efforts toward rebuilding the state. But, less than 24 hours after their announcement, new rioting occurred. Bomb blasts continued.

According to reports from the state capital of Gauhati, the moderate student union leaders have been eclipsed by hard-liners, both from inside the movement and outside its ranks.

The leader of a militant Hindu organization, a young lawyer named Joy Nath Sarma, told the prestigious magazine ''India Today'' that he and his followers ''will gladly die for a great cause.'' He claimed that his group - the ''Sweccha Sevak Bahini'' - had more than 30 regional units in the central Brahmaputra Valley alone, which has been the scene of Assam's most vicious violence, leading to the imposition of a virtual state of martial law. The army is deployed throughout the valley, and that, according to diplomatic officials here, appears to have emboldened the Bengali Muslims into striking back.

It appears that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has few options available except the reimposition of direct ''president's rule.'' That would allow a one-year period to attempt to heal the wound while arriving at some solution, if only a temporary one. Mrs. Gandhi's parliamentary opposition has called for an annulment of Assam's February poll.

The prime minister has agreed to the identification of those immigrants who entered Assam after 1971. In the view of some observers, that is tacit recognition that they must be expelled. But, in a nation where more than half the people live below the poverty line, it is not clear which Indian state could absorb them.

The military government of neighboring Bangladesh has not only refused to repatriate any of the migrants but also has threatened, according to foreign diplomats, that if Mrs. Gandhi forces the issue, they will retaliate in kind. Bangladesh now houses some 12 million Hindus who, as in the days of partition, could be sent streaming over the Indian frontier.

Whether Mrs. Gandhi, or any other Indian leader, will be able to come to grips with the issue quickly is problematic, Western officials say. It defies simple solution and will require hard policy decisions which no longer temporize.

In Assam's population of 20 million, only 10 to 12 million are Hindu Assamese. An estimated 25 to 35 percent are Muslim, making Assam second only to Kashmir as India's major Muslim state.

Some of the prime minister's advisers are reportedly warning that the state may have to be partitioned in the end into three distinct units: one for the Assamese, one for the Bengalis, and a third tribal tract.

Such a plan would have dangerous portent throughout this culturally and linguistically diverse land. Sikhs in the fertile Punjab are already calling for virtual autonomy.

And Assam, as a unified entity, is crucial to India, strategically and economically. It commands the sensitive border opening to China and produces more than half of India's tea and oil.

Yet, if it is to remain unpartitioned, it will perhaps be another generation before the wounds will heal.

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