The far northeastern Indian state of Assam was virtually paralyzed by growing civil disorder today as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began a two-day helicopter tour of the remote region to campaign for an election that few people seem to want.
Amid growing demands that she call a halt to the state assembly election campaign, which in the last week has been accompanied by the deaths of 46 persons, Gandhi vowed to fulfill a constitutional mandate to go ahead with the balloting next week. Assam has been under emergency president's rule since dissolution of the state legislature during disturbances last March.
The election begins Monday and ends a week later. It represents a showdown between the prime minister and leaders of a three-year effort to expel nearly a million illegal aliens, who over the years have drifted into Assam from neighboring Bangladesh.
The student-led movement has been battling to protect the indigenous Assamese population's ethnic and cultural identity by striking from the state's electoral rolls 4 million immigrants--mostly Moslems and Bengali-speaking refugees from Bangladesh--and expelling nearly a million of them to surrounding Indian states. The population of Assam is 20 million.
For Gandhi, the election has become a test of her prestige and authority, and a last-minute cancellation of the balloting could compound her mounting political problems in the wake of recent losses in state elections in southern India.
Protected by extraordinary security measures, the prime minister began a rigorous tour of the sprawling state that is connected to the rest of India by a narrow land corridor. In speeches, she stressed national unity and warned of regionalism that turns to separatism.
A security force of more than 50,000 men, including 35,000 central reserve police airlifted to Assam by the central government, is deployed for the election. Another 60,000 civil service employes have been dispatched to supervise the balloting.
Despite near martial-law regulations, the state has been in turmoil for a week. Foreign reporters have been prohibited from entering Assam, but reports by the state-controlled Indian news agencies have told of daily attacks on police stations by angry mobs, bomb blasts in the Assamese capital of Gauhati, blowing up of rail lines and sabotaging of communications links.
Police opened fire on rampaging mobs in two places near Gauhati today, killing six persons, news agencies reported.
Nightly "blackouts" have been ordered by protest leaders and enforced by gangs of youths who have stoned and sometimes burned houses that have been found to be lighted, according to reports. Candidates who attempt to campaign have been assaulted and the security forces accompanying them as bodyguards have had their rifles snatched.
The state government has been paralyzed by a walkout of employes, and a strike has shut down the Indian Oil Co. refinery at Digboi.
The three major opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election, leaving only Gandhi's Congress (I) Party and a Communist party in the contest. The local leader of the opposition Janata Party, Ravindra Varma, earlier this week appealed to the prime minister to save the situation by cancelling the election.
The indigenous Assamese, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group that traces its origins to nomads from Thailand in the 12th century, are primarily Hindu. They say they are in danger of being culturally and economically overrun by the influx of mostly Moslem immigrants.