Roots of Assam election violence run deep in India's history

The Indian state of Assam is still paying for the partition of the subcontinent at the time of independence in 1947, when British India was divided into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim Pakistan.

The tragedy of the past several weeks, which has resulted in more than 1,100 ghastly deaths in one of India's northeastern states, was triggered by elections for the state legislature called by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Assam has been ruled directly by New Delhi for nearly a year. To prolong central rule beyond the year would have required a constitutional amendment by Parliament.

The prime minister felt that the elections and resulting new state government could lend a new dynamic to resolving the problem. Her gamble failed. The agitators' success in persuading or preventing most of Assam's 8.6 million electors from exercising their franchise and the unprecedented violence has left the incoming state government with little moral authority.

At the root of the problem in Assam is a complex set of factors that are historical, social, economic, and cultural. The current violence follows years of agitation led by militant students and an Assamese party seeking the deportation of ''foreigners.'' Many of the so-called outsiders are Bengalis who, over the decades, have built up a sizable colony in Assam. They were better educated and more prosperous than the local people. Since they also suffered from a streak of cultural superiority, they tended to keep apart and looked down upon the Assamese.

Unlike in the western part of India, which was flooded with millions of refugees at the time of partition in one fell swoop, Hindu migration in the east from then East Pakistan continued for decades. Most of the refugees, about 10 million, went to the state of West Bengal. Others went to Assam and the present state of Meghalaya.

After the east half of Pakistan split from Pakistan in 1971, a so-called secret agreement was reached between Mrs. Gandhi and the new Bangladesh leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that she would not send back people already settled in India. This came about because batches of Muslims were sent back to East Pakistan during the 1960s. With the India-Bangladesh agreement, the issue for New Delhi boiled down to the post-1971 migrants in Assam.

The feeling of insecurity among the Assamese has grown over the decades and predates the active phase of agitation launched about three years ago by the All-Assam Students Union and the Assamese political party Gana Samgram Parishad.

The agitators have given up the extreme demand that all outsiders who entered Assam illegally after 1951 be ousted. They realized that millions of people, most of them Hindus, could not be uprooted and banished. But the agitators have been insisting that all those ''illegal'' immigrants who came into Assam after 1965, mostly Muslims, should be disenfranchised and deported. The central government has agreed in principle to remove those who entered Assam after 1971 and send them to other Indian states.

Although the differences betweeen New Delhi and the Assamese might appear small, it involves the fate of more than 8 million people out of a population of 20 million. After returning to power January 1980, Mrs. Gandhi adopted the policy of prolonging talks with agitation leaders in the hope that the agitation would run out of steam.

This did not happen. On the contrary, the delay strengthened the agitators' belief that the central government was not serious about resolving the problem. While the earlier waves of refugees from East Pakistan came to India to escape persecution, the later arrivals from poverty-stricken Bangladesh came in search of a better living.

An earlier suggestion by New Delhi to build a wall along the border was withdrawn. And the Assamese continued to view themselves as being inundated by Bengali refugees who would make them a minority in their own land.

Those agitating for deporting ''foreigners'' are the Assamese Hindus on the plains. Together with the hill tribes, they constitute about two-thirds of the population.

The tribals, however, can be called Hindus only in the widest sense. Many of them are animists while a proportion was converted to Christianity. There are animosities between the tribals and the plainsmen. Their interests converged with the plainsmen in the election violence because they came to view the Bengali migrants as outsiders taking away their livelihood.

Indeed, even for the plainsmen Hindus, the economic factor is an important element in their desire to rid themselves of the Bengalis. But it has become so interwoven with emotional and linguistic layers that the latter have become more prominent.

The recent violence and the election in which few voted have left Assam bruised. The Assam agitators have won their point at a terrible cost. New Delhi now faces the task of binding the emotional wounds of the people who feel alienated.

Mrs. Gandhi does not have much room for manuever. To agree to the deportation of more than a million people could tear the national fabric and light the tinder of Hindu-Muslim animosity. At the same time, she must give the Assamese the feeling that their interests would be safeguarded.

Since New Delhi has agreed to send out people who entered Assam after 1971, the central government could begin this process with dispatch. The non-leftist opposition parties which boycotted the election will have to seek a solution as well. The process of reconciliation in Assam promises to be long and arduous.

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