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After the Assam killings

The massive electoral violence in Assam, a northeastern state of India, requires a more adequate explanation than has been offered so far. Previously the agitation in Assam was primarily, though not entirely, an urban phenomenon and the problem was not a typical Hindu-Muslim problem. But the massacre of Bengali Muslims by Hindu tribesmen in the villages might change the meaning of the Assam issue.

Historically, Assam has witnessed one of the highest rates of in-migration in India. Bengalis constituted the largest group - Muslim peasants from East Bengal (now Bangla-desh), and middle-class urban professionals, mostly Hindus, from West Bengal. The Bengali-speaking thus were both Hindus and Muslims. The Bengali Hindus captured the urban professions for they had a head start in the field of education.

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The Muslim Bengali peasantry, on the other hand, came from an area having very high population density but low agricultural productivity and a fragmented land structure incapable of supporting large families. To these peasants, Assam was a land of opportunity. Lands were virgin, and the Assamese rural folks, consisting of tribes also, did not have strong enough incentives to break out of their traditional, easy-paced habitat and start going for agriculture in a big way. So gradually the Bengali Muslims, starting in various low agrarian positions like laborers and tenants, started acquiring even greater quantities of land.

The immigrants tended to be better off than the natives both in the city and the villages. After independence, when education opportunities were systematically expanded, increasing numbers of educated Assamese entered the job market. But they could not counter the Bengali domination. Ethnic and family linkages of Bengalis firmly in hold of the professions in Assam led to a continuing bias in the new recruitments. Anti-Bengali sentiment thus began to rise. Meanwhile, the wave of Muslims from what had become East Pakistan after the partition of 1947 also continued.

The organized student movement in Assam has been fighting with the central government in Delhi over the issue of deportation of ''illegal aliens'' who came after 1961, the point after which the Hindu migration from East Pakistan seems to have ceased and Muslims have mostly migrated. The movement started on an anti-Bengali note, but both operationally and legally Hindu Bengalis from West Bengal could in no way be made to leave; for one, the Indian Constitution allowed freedom of interstate movement, and, two, the Assamese economy was inextricably linked with West Ben-gal.

As opposed to this, the ''post-1947 place of origin'' of the Muslim Bengalis easily made them ''aliens.'' A great number of them had simply filtered through the borders. This fact, for purposes of operational strategy, made them ''illegal aliens'' too. Additionally, they provided unstinted support to the ruling Congress Party and the party in turn started patronizing them, so much so that local politicians of the Congress Party seem to have put them on the electoral rolls in ever greater numbers irrespective of whether or not they had Indian citizenship. Thus the focus of the students' wrath became the Muslim Bengalis, despite the initial general anti-Bengali sentiment.

The central government has agreed in principle that the post-1971 migrants should be deported, but the student leaders insist on 1961 as the mark-off point. If the central government accepts this, it will be faced with the difficult task of persuading the Bangladesh government to take them back or other state governments of India to absorb them.

Should Mrs. Gandhi have called elections in such a situation? What could have been the reasons? She has argued that further extension of the federal rule over the state was constitutionally problematic. Her past political and constitutional record, however, does not indicate that constitutional reasons were absolutely pressing. A more convincing reason seemed to be her need for an election victory, though in the process she completely miscalculated the consequences. Such a miscalculation is perfectly compatible with her style of functioning, consistent in its intolerance of dissent. As a result she does not normally get accurate feedback; she ends up being told what she wants to hear.

However, blaming her directly for the carnage would be a hasty exercise. It is clear that she did not anticipate the level of violence. But given the fact that the electoral rolls were so controversial, for they seemed to contain large numbers of illegal entries objected to by the agitation leaders, it was a mistake to have gone for elections.

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What lies ahead?

Until now the Assam problem was primarily an ethnic issue based on the feeling in the native community that it had historically been neglected and left behind. Now the conflict is likely to take on a communal, Hindu-Muslim color too. The political fallout will be greater unmanageability. The new state government after the electoral victory of Mrs. Gandhi's party based on a thin 10 percent electoral turnout will obviously find it difficult to function and there will be a toughening in Mrs. Gandhi's stand vis-a-vis the student leaders, making a solution perhaps all the more difficult.

Inflexibility, however, will create more problems than it can solve. It is time for Mrs. Gandhi's government to work more constructively toward the sensible middle points. Deportation of ''aliens,'' to be sure, is indefensible, morally and politically, but electoral rolls could be practically, more responsibly made and checked. Narrow political calculations should not go into it. If the Assamese could thus be convinced that they would not be politicallym swamped by the alien presence, they would be more tolerant of their generalm presence.

For the long run, a more serious patrolling of the borders, special measures for tribals who remain underdogs, and a clear general understanding of the conditions in which migrants can become citizens and vote are needed. A complete solution acceptable to all is an impossibility but alleviation of the problem is not. New Delhi has to work for it.

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