Tragic tensions in India

The world is witnessing a poignant coincidence that just may offer seeds of hope along with stark tragedy. The tragedy lies in the killings of an estimated 1,300 men, women, and children during the bloodiest election in India's history.

The hope lies in the strength of love and nonviolence which India saw in the career of Mahatma Gandhi, who is being vividly remembered in a current film.

Something as fundamental as Gandhian humanity seems required to ameliorate the situation in India's northeastern state of Assam. Analysts provide no obvious lesser solutions to entangled ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, and economic conflicts.

Violence has broken out sporadically since India's independence in 1947. It has been precipitated in the past month as mainly Hindu Assamese protested voting by mainly Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh in elections for the state assembly and national parliament. Both sides have been involved in attacks to some degree. A grim climax came on the weekend when hundreds of Bengali Muslims were massacred by tribal groups.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has been criticized for going ahead with the elections in the circumstances. Her Congress Party was reported to have the allegiance of most of the immigrant voters.

But she could argue that elections were needed to satisfy constitutional requirements for state government after a period of direct federal rule. She was certainly correct when she challenged those responsible for the killings, who ''may not like the elections, but do they have the right to stop them?''

One factor in the Assamese protest is reported to be the competition of immigrants for rich local lands. Many of the immigrants are called ''illegal.'' But many also are second-generation by now, and Mrs. Gandhi defends anyone born in India as a citizen, while offering to negotiate expulsion of relatively recent Bengali immigrants.

It also might be said that the borders in such regions tend to be fluid, barely marked. People move across easily. Often the issue is less legal than personal - what language the migrants speak, what religion they practice.

Stubborn strife based on such age-old questions is not peculiar to India, as a glance on the map either east or west would confirm. But wherever this kind of strife persists, whatever the specific measures that may ease it, the long-range solutions should not be forgotten - the attitudes of peace that were not outlived in Mahatma Gandhi's time.

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