As the death toll in the election massacres in the far northeastern Indian state of Assam crept toward an estimated 1,000, the ethnic violence sparked bitter recriminations in India's Parliament today in an opening salvo of what promises to become an acrimonious political issue for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
It has been one of the worst outbreaks of violence between ethnic groups since India won independence in 1947.
Opposition leaders charged that, at best, Gandhi grossly miscalculated the consequences of forcing state assembly elections in Assam, and at worst, cynically exploited the unrest there in hopes of attaining an absolute majority in the legislature for her ruling Congress (I) Party.
The government responded that it had shown restraint in the face of "grave provocations" and that it could not allow near anarchy to subvert the democratic political process in any Indian state, no matter how emotional the issues.
Congress (I) Party leaders in Parliament implicitly blamed the opposition parties for fueling a three-year, frequently violent ethnic movement to expel nearly a million Bengali-speaking illegal aliens who over the years have immigrated to Assam from neighboring Bangladesh.
In an unusual step, Parliament suspended its scheduled discussions and held a special debate on Assam following opposition demands that the government explain its decision to force the election in the troubled and remote state.
Janata Party leader Madhu Dandavate accused Gandhi of seeking to expand her party's hold in Assam over the bodies of the hundreds killed when tribesmen with bows and arrows and machetes attacked scores of villages in central Assam. The tribesmen are supporters of the student-led ethnic movement that has sought to expel illegal immigrants, and most of the victims in the weekend massacre near Nellie, in central Assam, are Bengali-speaking immigrants. Scores of others were killed in the ethnic violence earlier last week.
Dandavate called for censuring the government and said that in any other democratic country, the government would have offered to resign.
Gandhi was not present for the debate, but was making a helicopter tour of the stricken areas.