INDIA’S Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, faces a grave challenge in the small north-eastern State of Assam, which is wedged between Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Complaining of being swamped by illegal immigrants from the latter, militant Assamese have for more than nine months conducted a vicious campaign against both Bengalis and Muslims.

Thousands of refugees have been forced to flee into West Bengal. Their houses have been looted and burned down. But more ominous is Assam’s strident defiance of the Government in New Delhi.

TRAINS are not allowed to run; letters are not delivered; offices are boycotted; shops remain closed; and students refuse to go to school and college. Life is totally paralysed. About 150 people have been murdered in the past couple of months. Assam is also holding back its exports of oil, jute, paddy, timber and bamboo. The oil blockade -Assam provides one seventh of India’s total consumption, of crude -costs the country S(U.S.)4 million a day.

“If they push us back five yards, the movement will advance 500 miles”, said an Assamese woman picketing the oil pipeline.

The campaign is ostensibly led by the All-Assam Students Union and by an apex body called the Gana Sangram Parishad (People’s Struggle Committee). But it is supported by all politicians, civil servants and professional people in an unprecedented resurgence of narrowly local revivalism.

Mrs. Gandhi flew to the main town of Gauhati on April 12 in an attempt to persuade agitation leaders to see reason. She had to return to New Delhi within nine hours without accomplishing anything.

The Assamese say that there are five million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh among the 19 million people in their State. (Almost four decades later controvercial NRC exercise found this number to be less than two millions) They want everyone whose name did not appear in a 1951 National Register of Citizens to be first deprived of voting rights, and then deported. Already, kangaroo courts have been set up to force villagers to prove their bona fides: the populist exercise respects no legal norms and inevitably invites retaliatory violence.

The upheaval masks a campaign that Assam has been pursuing with single-minded zeal for many years: expulsion of Bengalis who have lived in parts of the State since before the British created the province in 1874. For many years, the British province of Assam included districts that are now in Bangladesh, so the population inevitably became mixed. In addition, the Assamese themselves encouraged Muslim immigration right up to the 1950s.

Until 1947 when British India was divided between India and Pakistan, Assamese politicians hoped that a substantial Muslim population would allow them to join Pakistan. When that expectation was belied, they continued to import Muslim peasants as a counterpoise to Bengalis.

Initially, the Muslims supported Assamese aims. They could be coerced into describing themselves as Assamese-speaking, thereby falsifying census returns. They also took a leading part in anti-Bengali pogroms all through the 1950s and early 1960s. But with growing self-confidence, Muslim settlers claimed a distinctive cultural identity of their own. That was when the Assamese began describing all Muslims as illegal immigrants from East Pakistan. There were frequent antiMuslim witch-hunts in the middle 1960s.

ASSAM’s dilemma is explained by the fact that the language was regarded as only a dialect of Bengali in the 19th Century. The province was taken by the British from King Theebaw of Burma; and the Assamese themselves are in a numerical minority.

They have used various stratagems artificially to inflate their strength; but the State still does not qualify for the legal description of “unilingual”. Bengali is constitutionally recognized as an official language.

Hence the movement to expel all outsiders. Since this would go against the basic premise of India’s multiracial and multicultural ethos, the Assamese have raised the bogey of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The argument has several flaws. India’s Constitution does not regard anyone in the sub-continent a foreigner. Citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh enjoy the automatic right to enter India, live here in peace, and to acquire full Indian rights. In addition, India has in practice always operated a variant of the Law of Returns: the 10 million residual Hindus left in Bangladesh are tacitly recognized as India’s ultimate responsibility, with the right of sanctuary in this country.

Most people suspect that if once Assam is allowed to deport “foreigners”, the State will use that excuse to throw out everyone who remotely belongs to some other part of India. “As one burns the grass, the berry trees go with it in flames” says an old Assamese proverb.

There are also fears that some of the leaders in Assam might be planning to secede from the Indian Union. Gauhati is plastered with posters reading “Assam oil belongs to the Assamese” and “Indians should get out of Assam”. There is much talk too of a notional “United States of Assam” to include Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura.

This 250,000 square kilometre triangle of territory is bounded by Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh. It is joined to the rest of the country only by the narrow neck of the Assam corridor. It is also in a state of political and military ferment. A number of separate secessionist movements, some purely local and others inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, their leaders trained in China and Tibet, are discovering a basis for unity in their common Mongolian heritage. Ethnically and culturally, the region lies outside the Indian mainstream.

This is one reason why Mrs. Gandhi cannot afford to let the Assamese get away with their turbulent campaign. If she does, the rest of the north-east might one day slip out of India’s control.

Another, no less compelling, reason is the likely impact on policy in other parts of India. Though created on the basis of linguistic cohesiveness, Indian States arc not exactly racist nations. A successful “Assam for the Assamese only” campaign will prompt emulation elsewhere with disastrous consequences for national unity. West Bengal’s liberal and rational Chief Minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, has repeatedly warned New Delhi that he might not be able to protect his State’s catholicity if local chauvinism is encouraged next door.

West Bengal has a substantial resident ethnic Nepalese population. Its trade is entirely in the hands of Rajasthani businessmen. Senior commercial executives are all Punjabi. Industrial workers are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; policemen are Bihari; domestic servants come from Orissa; and tea garden labourers from Madhya Pradesh. It is unthinkable that these millions of people should be uprooted and expelled. But this might happen if Assamese militancy is not curbed.

Mrs Gandhi has not as yet shown much awareness of these danger signals. She is anxious to placate the Assamese, possibly hoping thereby to inflict a blow on West Bengal’s Marxist Ministry. But appeasement or not, the Union Government’s writ no longer runs in Assam. The Assamese are able to do just as they please, and to get away with it.

(This is a reproduction of an article written by famous journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray under the title ‘Assam under Pressure : Exerts some on Mrs. Gandhi’. The article was published on 11 June, 1980 in Canberra Times.)