Gandhi under fire as separatist unrest rises in India

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faces rising criticism for sending his Army to fight in Sri Lanka's insurgency while separatist battles wrack parts of his own country. Although separatist violence has plagued India since independence, analysts say that the violence is now far more extensive. Not a day passes without newspaper reports of killings in the Punjab or elsewhere.

The unrest has brought bloodshed and severely undermined economic activity in the following areas:

The north-central Jharkand region: The mainly Christian tribal fighters have announced plans to form a parallel government.

Manipur, in the northeast: Militant youths have imposed a week-long ``people's curfew'' throughout the state to press their antigovernment agitation.

Punjab: Sikh extremists have set up an 11-member ruling council for an independent homeland.

Tripura: Underground separatist rebels have carried out a new series of attacks on immigrants from bordering Bangladesh, leaving 24 people dead.

Meghalaya: Militants have driven nearly 25,000 immigrant settlers from their homes after a call to all ``Indians'' to leave the state.

Critics say the government has no coherent policy to tackle separatist unrest.

``Security is best enhanced by dealing with the root causes of whatever might be responsible for anger, frustration, alienation, or injustice - and not by just treating the consequences,'' says B.G. Verghese, a fellow at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research.

Many analysts say that the government responds to ethnic agitation only after blood has been spilled - and that, too, with a local firefighting approach.

Several other areas are also in turmoil: Nagaland, where tribespeople are waging a guerrilla campaign to set up a sovereign, Christian, socialist state; the Gurkha-dominated Himalayan region of Darjeeling; and Kashmir, a stronghold of Muslim extremists.

A national convention on communalism and separatism last week called for a ``countrywide mass movement'' to fight separatists and religious activists.

Some analysts say the federal government in the world's most populous democracy has become too powerful, and that decentralization of political power is necessary to control ethnic unrest. Greater regional autonomy is a major demand of many Indian agitators.

Hindu militants, always quick to condemn demands for greater autonomy, say they view the latest violence as a ``grave threat to the nation's unity and territorial integrity from divisive and anti-national forces.''

The Congress (I) party, which has governed India for all but three of the 40 years since independence, has been the country's only national party with support from all communities and regions. But in recent years, it has lost considerable support among minority groups.

Analysts say the erosion of support is linked to the growth of regionalism and the increasing assertion of cultural and ethnic identity throughout India. The defeat of the Congress party in recent state elections has underlined the threat to Mr. Gandhi's political future. Ironically, the separatist unrest has also eaten into Gandhi's support among Hindus: It has given rise to an image of a wavering, indecisive leader unable to cope with agitations.

Gandhi's use of the Army has failed to suppress separatist campaigns. Policymakers have been urged to place less emphasis on security measures and more on political concessions and economic incentives to check ethnic discontent. To some extent, this advice is being followed.

Aid is now pouring into the troubled northeast. The government has approved major development projects in the Punjab, Kashmir, Jharkand, and Darjeeling.

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