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Strikes, turmoil in Assam threaten Indian unity

Six months of strikes, blockades, and often-violent demonstrations to force out "foreigners" from the Indian state of Assam have severely jolted the Indian economy and raised the specters of ethnic civil war and separatism in India's strategic northeast.

The Assam governor declared the oil-producing state a "disturbed area" effective April 6, enabling state officials to call in Indian Army troops to quell civil disorder.

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But hundreds of Assamese have continued to court arrest in demonstrations throughout the state. And the student-led picketing and blockades of the state's oil refineries and pipeline have choked off the supply of Assam's crude to oil-starved heartland India, costing the central government $125 million a month in petroleum imports to make up critical shortages of diesel and kerosene.

The turmoil in Assam has threatened national unity and caused "lasting harm," according to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

"It's national crisis stuff," exclaims a Commonwealth ambassador. Estimates of lives lost in the statewide agitation range from 50 to 90.

What began as a movement to strike thousands of aliens -- mostly Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh -- from the Assam voting rolls has turned into an "Assam for the Assamese" campaign openly aimed at Indian settlers from other states.They are seen as grabbing the best white-collar jobs, exploiting the state economically, and, together with the Bangladeshi immigrants, threatening to reduce the Assamese to a cultural and linguistic minority in their own state.

The Assamese complaints closely parallel the growing anti-Indian sentiment in the rest of the geographically isolated northeast. "The movement in the whole northeast is a struggle for survival, to preserve our identity and to keep from being submerged by other nationalities of India," says Laldenga, chief of the rebel Mizo National Front in the northeastern territory of Mizoram.

Adding to the antagonisms was a recent retaliatory road blockade of Assam by units of Mrs. Gandhi's Congress-I Party in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. It created shortages of food, consumer goods, and other commodities throughout Assam and the four other states and two territories of the 100,000 square mile northeast.

Wedged between Bangladesh, China, and Burma, the northeast is linked with heartland India by a thin strip of land that joins Assam and West Bengal and by even thinner cultural, ethnic, racial, and linguistic ties.

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Many of the region's 25.5 million people are part of tribal hill societies that speak their own languages or dialects, maintain distinct cultural traditions and more closely resemble Chinese, Burmese, or Tibetans than heartland Indians. Many residents regard India as little more than a colonial power, and simmering unrest has frequently broken into armed rebellion in Mizoram and the states of Nagaland and Manipur.

Since India became an independent nation in 1947, successive central governments have done little to develop agriculture or industry in the geographically isolated area. The area's resulting sense of isolation and alienation now threatens to explode into widespread antigovernment rebellion.

The northeasterners' most immediate fear is that they will lose their cultural and political identity to a wave of outsiders -- either other Indians or Bangladesh immigrants -- seeking land and job opportunities.

In Assam, the unrest generated demands last fall for the removal of 200,000 alleged illegal aliens from the state voting rolls. It forced the postponement of January national elections in 12 out of the state's 14 parliamentary districts, and has escalated to a call for deportation of all foreigners.

Mrs. Gandhi's government and the All-Assam Students Union, the most potent political force in the state, are negotiating a cutoff year for the identification and deportation of foreigners, with the government offering 1971 and the students holding out for 1951.

But under an agreement signed by the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh and Mrs. Gandhi, Bangladesh is not obligated to take back any of its nationals who migrated to India before 1971.


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