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India's Legacy of Nonviolence Is Disappearing in Regional Rebellions, Terrorism

January 24, 1988|DILIP GANGULY | Associated Press

NEW DELHI — In India, where peaceful protests gave birth to a nation four decades ago, the cradle of nonviolence is being rocked by regional rebellions, terrorist attacks and the taking of hostages.

To some, the land of gurus has become the land of guns.

At least 1,837 people were killed and more than 5,000 wounded in political and sectarian violence in 1987, according to figures compiled by the government.

"India is a boiling caldron. I mean, a boiling, democratic caldron," a Home Ministry spokesman says.

The most sustained and vicious rebellion is in Punjab, where Sikh militants seek greater autonomy--and, in some cases, an independent nation.

But 1987 also saw riots between Hindus and Muslims, a Gurkha guerrilla war in the tea plantations around Darjeeling and tribal revolts in the northeastern states of Bihar and Tripura.

Recent weeks brought a phenomenon virtually without precedent in India--the taking of hostages, by Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of southern India.

"The events have no doubt raised questions about the future, but India is a big country, and in a democracy these things are bound to happen," said the Home Ministry spokesman, who under government regulations spoke on condition of anonymity.

Political analysts say the violence could escalate into a serious crisis in 1988 for this nation of 780 million people--an assertion disputed by the chief government spokesman, Rammoham Rao.

"That is too sweeping a statement to make. Things are not as bad as they appear to be," Rao said.

But political scientist Dhirubhai Sheth said, "The present crisis, in a fundamental sense, is a crisis of legitimacy of the political authority.

"The government is not only unable to counter the campaigns (rebellions) but does not have the guts or willingness to face them boldly," said Sheth, a professor and staff member of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a government think tank.

Whether India's regional revolts can be quelled depends on how the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responds to the issues that provoked them, Sheth said.

"If they are handled in the same way as is being done now, we are in for trouble," he said in an interview.

The most serious problem is Sikh violence in the northern state of Punjab, near the Pakistani border.

At least 975 civilians, 281 Sikh militants and 57 police officers were killed in Punjab last year. The government blamed most of the civilian deaths on Sikh gunmen who stormed into the homes of Hindus and moderate Sikhs alike.

About 13 million of India's 16 million Sikhs live in Punjab, and the most militant want to create a new nation in the rich farming state.

The rise of Maoist extremists, called Naxalites, is also causing concern.

A government statement said 200 people died in 1987 in violence unleashed by Naxalites, who held 24 government employees hostage Dec. 27-29 in the southeastern Andhra Pradesh state until eight Naxalites were freed from prison.

The Naxalites, who take their name from Naxalbari village in West Bengal state, advocate armed overthrow of the government and are active in Andhra Pradesh and in pockets of Bihar and West Bengal.

Another trouble spot is the Himalayan hill district of Darjeeling in West Bengal state, where Gurkhas, once the feared fighters of the imperial British army, want a separate state.

At least 60 people were killed last year in Gurkha attacks.

Riots between Hindus and Muslims claimed 179 lives last year, mostly in New Delhi, Meerut, Ahmedabad and Baroda.

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