Mrs. Gandhi keeps Tripura strife at arm's length

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi seems to have decided to play a waiting game in dealing with strife-torn Tripura state. The administrative and political risks involved in taking over a state which has seen India's worst mass killings in 30 years have apparently convinced her not to replace the local Marxist government with direct central rule.

For some time she has been covetously eyeing extending central authority over the few states still in opposition hands. And following last week's tribal rampage against the state's immigrant Bengali settlers from Bangladesh, some of Mrs. Gandhi's partymen began clamoring for the dismissal of Tripura Chief Ministr Nripen Chakraborty's government and the imposition of central rule.

But she has left the government of Tripura -- one of three states governed by leftist fronts led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) - intact.

"If they introduced president's rule now, then the center would immediately become responsible for whatever happens there next," says an area analyst. "It's much better to let the CPI-M government sweat."

Among the problems the Tripura government is, indeed, sweating out are sheltering the 224,000 refugees who have fled their homes to 225 hastily assembled transit camps. With rations now down to a five-day supply, the refugees are appealing for food and relief supplies. Hundreds of injured are being packed into supply-short hospitals.

It also faces the possibility of further carnage if the Bengali settlers - the majority of the states population -- take vengeance against the tribespeople.

The tribal attacks in which entire villages were destroyed have been blamed on a hardcored group of several hundred armed tribal youths now reportedly on the run within the densely forested state.

But thousands of tribals not involved in the attacks have fled deep into the forests for fear of reprisal. They are reportedly close to starvation. Armed tribal rebels and security forces continue to trade shots in scattered locations , and officials penetrating remote areas are finding still more bodies.

Fatality figures have fluctuated wildly. The state government now claims fewer than 400 were killed while many on-scene observers peg the total at more than 1,000. Foreigners -- including journalists -- are not permitted inside the state. But the reports of Indian journalists who have visited the worst massacre sites give credence to the higher death toll.

The state government has come under sharp criticism from New Delhi for allegedly ignoring warnings by central intelligence agencies that trouble was brewing. Mr. Chakraborty counters that the central government shrugged off his repeated requests, for more than a year, for extra security forces.

The drawbacks of an immediate move apparently outweighed Mrs. Gandhi's desire to install Congress-I governments in Tripura as well as the two major CPI-M-ruled states, West Bengal and Kerala.

Among them, Tripura would have to elect a fresh new state assembly within six months of the start of president's rule -- a massive logistics problem given the magnitude of refugee dislocations.

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