India's Assam state recovers from violence - and builds a border fence
Five months after rampaging violence gripped this northeastern Indian state, Assam plans to begin constructing a barbed-wire fence that will eventually stretch along the entire Indian border with Bangladesh.
The fence starts going up in October in an effort to keep out Bangladesh's migratory Muslims, who have been spilling across the border, sometimes in trickles, sometimes in waves, since the partition of British India 36 years ago. Bangladesh's martial law leader, Gen. H.M. Ershad, charges that New Delhi's ''fence between neighbors'' threatens his sovereignty.
The fence is part of an ''anti-foreign'' program begun under the new Assam government - which was brought to power in February elections that cost 3,000 lives. The All-Assam Student's Union (AASU), which has led the state's ''anti-foreign'' agitation for the last four years, has demanded that 4 million of the ''foreigners'' - nearly all Bengali Muslims in oil-rich, mainly Hindu Assam - either be expelled from the state or, minimally, taken off its voting rolls. An AASU campaign to disrupt road transportation and a call for a 36-hour general strike led to five bomb blasts at the end of August and at least three deaths.
Numbering only 10 to 12 million in a population of 20 million today, native Assamese fear that their own rights, job opportunities, language, and culture are being threatened by the Bengali wave.
The new chief minister, Hiteswar Saikia, has shown himself to be far more skillful than many had thought. Yet he was operating in what was largely a political void, as the AASU student leaders programmed new strategies.
Mr. Saika, who represents the Congress (I) Party of Prime Minister Gandhi, has been more successful than his predecessors have been in wrenching concessions from the central government. He was able to get 23 special tribunals which will detect ''foreigners'' who have been either living or voting in Assam since Bangladesh's creation in 1971.
Mrs. Gandhi's government has also introduced in the federal Parliament a bill to clear the way for increased oil royalties, a long-standing Assamese demand.
Saika also expects to receive at least part of his $10 million request to build a permanent capital for his far-off state, hopeful that the lure of lucrative government contracts would be an incentive to diffuse AASU's appeal among the masses, where political persuasion had failed.
Large numbers of refugees continue living in makeshift camps or tents, according to Indian journalists. Foreign correspondents still are not permitted to visit Assam.
The government plans to repatriate 25,000 Assamese refugees now in west Bengal. The AASU and other groups supporting the agitation say they will resist it, whatever the cost.
Perhaps more unsettling than any other single factor, as Assam continues to struggle for the facade of a normal life, are reports from Indian intelligence sources that at least four groups of Assamese are receiving guerrilla training in the Burmese jungles, in camps previously used by rebels from India's volatile state of Nagaland, which has been gripped by insurgency for most of this country's independent years.
And, according to the same sources, security raids on Assam's Muslim immigrant pockets have unearthed several caches of arms. All had Bangladeshi markings, as have other caches uncovered in the neighboring state of Mizoram.
There are many who fear that this is only the beginning of General Ershad's indignant charge that he would oppose Assam's barbed-wire fencing, however formidable the cost.