Authorities in Tripura today appealed for emergency food aid to help feed more than 224,000 refugees jammed in makeshift camps following a sharp increase in ethnic violence in the northeastern Indian state.
Fearing outbreaks of cholera and other diseases, health authorities warned residents not to drink water from two main rivers contaminated by floating, decomposing bodies.
Officials said the death toll is the highest since the Hindu-Moslem clashes at the time of India's independence in 1947.
More than 1,000 persons reportedly were killed during week-long carnage recently when local tribesmen attacked Bengali settlements that included many immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. They are seen by the indigenous population as the threatening their jobs, land and traditions.
Nearly 100 villages have been completely gutted and one village with a population of 500 was almost completely exterminated by tribal raiders, according to the authorities. About 12 percent of Tripura's population is now in refugee camps.
Already crippled by inadequate food supplies, Tripura authorities appealed to India's central government for 1,000 tons of rice in emergency aid. Tripura's Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty today took out display ads in major Indian newspapers to appeal for private and state governmental donations to a relief fund.
The Indian government will not permit foreign journalists to visit Tripura or other parts of the turbulent Indian northeast, which has been swept by violent protests against migrants, primarily Hindus from densely populated Bangladesh, who have gradually settled in the area.
But Indian journalists on the scene reported seeing miles of burnt villages, bodies and severed limbs rotting on the ground or floating down the Gomti River, and mass trench graves. They also reported the appearance of fresh posters with the warning, "This was not the end. The fight will continue."
Indian Army Reinforcements have sealed off the Tripura-Bangladesh border to prevent the escape of armed tribesmen believed to be hiding in the forests.
For decades, migrants, primarily Bengalis, have settled in the region and were at first welcomed because of their skills in turning virgin soil into fertile land. In the 1965 and 1971, war between India and Pakistan brought more refugees from Bangladesh, which was then called East Pakistan.
The 1971 creation of Bangladesh with the help of the Indian military produced a steady flow of immigrants who now comprise more than 50 percent of Tripura's population.
The Hindu Bengalis brought with them a different language and culture. The tribespeople, who are mainly hill dwellers and are predominantly Christian, also saw the immigrant tide moving into the hills.
Tribal resentments have been brewing in Tripura and Indian areas near the Burmese border as their lands, economic standing and population ration shrank before the immigrant tide. In April, there was unrest in neighboring Assam when students demonstrated in favor of the expulsion from Assam of all "foreigners" including Indians from other states.
In Tripura, the confrontation erupted when the Bengali settlers opposed tribal relief measures adopted by the local government. One measure called for the return of tribal lands sold off to immigrants without the approval of district magistrates. The other established an autonomous tribal district covering 68 percent of the state's 4,116 square miles.
The latter measure held up by a court challenge, the tribal fury first erupted in early June into a series of organized boycotts protesting economic domination by immigrant Bengali merchants and demanding the expulsion of "foreigners" from the state.
These were followed by an apparently well organized tribal uprising that caught the Bengalis by surprise. The tribesmen were armed with modern weapons as well as traditional swords, spears and bows and arrows when they assailed Bengali settlements last week.
According to Indian reports, local police were completely ineffective in controlling the situation and the violence subsided only after Indian Army troops were rushed into the state.
The Tripura situation is now further complicated by calls for revenge issued by local Bengali organizations.
The Tripura violence has set off a round of finger pointing between the central and state governments, sparking speculation that Prime Minister Indria Gandhi may dissolve the state government and place Tripura under direct New Delhi rule.
Central government spokesmen have blamed the "weak [state] government suffering from indecision" for the unrest. Chakraborty charged that his repeated requests for reinforcements were ignored.