Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rejected suggestions today that her government bore any moral responsibility for the massacres in the far northeast Indian state of Assam because the government had forced state elections amid growing unrest or had failed to provide adequate security.
Even if the elections had been suspended, Gandhi said, the clashes between Moslem immigrants from Bangladesh and indigenous Assamese Hindus might not have been avoided. The violence has left an estimated 1,000 persons dead.
Gandhi's comments came as reports from Assam reached here telling of a new wave of communal clashes in which tribesmen attacked several villages. The Army was reported to have recovered 65 charred bodies from several villages in the interior of the state.
In the past three days, 100 persons are reported to have been killed, and thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh states. An estimated 100,000 persons in Assam have been made homeless.
In a press conference for foreign journalists that was dominated by questions about the Assam massacres, the prime minister also dismissed suggestions by some leading opposition figures that she had either been misguided by her advisers about the potential for violence in Assam, or had exploited the unrest when an opportunity presented itself for gaining an absolute majority in the state for her Congress (I) Party.
"You can say, perhaps, that forces were not deployed in certain places where they should be. When we look into it, perhaps many faults will be found. But many of these have to do with lack of resources, not having sufficient people and so on," Gandhi said. "We provided tremendous security. This is a very big country, and we really don't have the facilities that some countries have."
She said that a tribunal or commission of inquiry would probably be empaneled to investigate the massacres, but she cautioned that official probes into similar communal clashes in the past had yielded little in the way of identifying and bringing to justice mob leaders or participants in mass killings.
"Any little thing sparks it off at once. It is not necessary that something is brewing for a long time . . . . Violence in some places was premeditated, but in other places it wasn't," Gandhi said.
The prime minister said her government has an "obvious responsibility" for safeguarding all Indian citizens, but in response to repeated questions, she denied--testily on one occasion--that the government had a moral responsibility for the Assam violence.
"The way the questions are put, if the government resigned, would that make the people of Assam safer or not? What is the point of asking such a question?" Gandhi asked.
An Assamese ethnic movement for three years had been battling to protect ethnic and linguistic identity by seeking to strike from the electoral rolls nearly 4 million Bengali-speaking immigrants and to expel nearly a million of them to surrounding Indian states.
She said she had a responsibility to uphold the constitution, which mandated elections a year after the imposition of the direct federal rule that has governed Assam since unrest last year. She denied contentions by the opposition that she could have obtained a two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to extend "president's rule" in Assam and accused some opposition leaders of "encouraging" riots in Assam.
Moreover, Gandhi said, yielding to demands by militant Assamese groups would have encouraged separatist forces elsewhere in India.
Amid continuing violence in Assam, Gandhi said there is "no question" of imposing a state of emergency there "at the moment." She said she will watch developments, but she would not say whether she would reinstitute "president's rule" after the new state government is installed, which under the constitution she could do.
The Assamese ethnic movement had vowed to prevent the elected government from functioning.
Asked whether India is threatened by a breakup because of the centrifugal forces of regionalism, Gandhi acknowledged that regionalism is growing but said, "Basically, unity is strong enough to put up with all these stresses and strains."
Gandhi said that the militant Assamese movement had received "encouragement" from outside India, including "some elements which are interested in destabilizing countries such as India, especially if that country tries to be independent." But she would not elaborate on what outside elements might have been involved.