Rao faces dilemma as state secessionists storm Delhi

IT WAS the first time the Red Fort had been stormed since the 1857 Mutiny, when British forces knocked the last Mogul emperor off his throne: on Sunday, a band of Himalayan mountain men, many of them ex-soldiers, braved a barrage of more than 1,500 tear-gas grenades and scaled the walls of Delhi's famous monument.

The siege was a symbolic protest, but it served as a warning to the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, that the bloody troubles of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state have spilled into the Indian capital. These modern day raiders are secessionists demanding that a new hill state be carved out of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with 115 million people.

On the surface, demands for Uttarkhand, as activists are calling the envisioned state, seem to be a feud between the hill people - tough soldiers, shepherds and farmers who inhabit the foothills of the high Himalayan ranges - and the plains people living along the Ganges river, who control the state's political might. But the unrest, according to Murli Manohar Joshi, a right-wing Hindu politician, 'is pushing the state into the worst kind of caste war'.

The agitation flared in this forested north-west corner of Uttar Pradesh in August, when the state's chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, declared that in the hill districts many government jobs and top school places would be reserved for lower castes. This enraged the hill people, since the upper castes, mainly of priestly Brahmins, warriors and merchants, make up 70 per cent of the population. Mr Yadav owes his seat in Lucknow, the state capital, to the lower-caste Hindus and the Muslims in the flatlands.

'You should be prepared to come out on to the street and fight for your rights,' Mr Yadav told his supporters in a rallying cry against the secessionists. But most of the fighting has been led by Mr Yadav's police. His foes accuse him of turning the police into a brutal, personal instrument of revenge.

At the weekend, when thousands of hill people began heading for Delhi to hold a non-violent rally on the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, the police barricaded roads and opened fire indiscriminately on the activists. At least 16 people were killed and 50 seriously wounded. Near the crossroads of Muzaffarnagar, according to eyewitnesses, police also rounded up scores of women protesters off coaches, and dragged them into sugarcane fields where they were gang-raped.

As reports of the Muzaffarnagar rapes and shootings reached into the hills, enraged activists set fire to police stations and government vehicles. A curfew was imposed yesterday at nine hill stations, while it was feared the death toll could be far higher. One activist, Chander Singh Negi, said, 'Nearly 200 people are missing. We're afraid that they have been killed.'

Until yesterday, the Prime Minister's ruling Congress Party had buoyed up Mr Yadav's government in Lucknow. But under pressure from Uttar Pradesh Congress leaders, Mr Rao may be forced to withdraw support for Mr Yadav's left-wing alliance of Muslims and lower-caste Hindus. It is a dilemma for Mr Rao. If he is to remain Prime Minister, his Congress party must do well in southern Indian state elections next month and must persuade lower-caste voters that Congress is willing to protect their interests.

Mr Yadav, despite his mischief- making, is viewed by many among India's under-privileged millions as one of their few champions. So if Mr Rao topples the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, he may eventually come crashing down, too.

(Map omitted)

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