The madness that has gripped parts of India, leading to the exodus of tens of thousands of people from the North-east — not just from Assam but from across the region — is not only an expression of fear and doubt, but also a stark reflection of the absolute and resolute ignorance that holds much of this country, including its educated middle-class, in its thrall about the region.
Many of those who left Bangalore and other cities and some of those targeted in those cities were not from Assam, where recent riots have seen 70 deaths and nearly half a million displaced, but from other parts of the region. But the riots in Assam have obviously had unforeseen repercussions.
To the handful of thugs who abused those targeted and that vicious SMS that drove many away, their actual place of origin was unimportant: they were all branded the same. But alas in that complex and volatile area, there is little in common between an Ahom and a Mizo, a Meitei or a Mishing, a Bodo or a Sherdupken, an Assamese Hindu and a Bengali-speaking Muslim. It is like saying that a Maharashtrian and a Tamil are the same or a Telugu speaker and an Oriya are from the same area.
To make the situation more complex, there are close relations between Assamese Hindus and Assamese-speaking Muslims; the latter feel they have been shut out of power politics by the better-organised Bengali-speakers. Those affected in the recent riots are Bodos and largely Bengali-origin/speaking Muslims. But who knows about these differences — and more important, who cares? No one, if you go by the handful of assaults or the hate-spewing SMSs. Such great ignorance only leads to greater opportunities for vicious proponents of hate propaganda of the extreme right to run amok.
While it must be said that the number of actual incidents are thankfully not too many, the technology-driven fear-filled exodus tells us a chilling thing: how easy it is, in this diverse nation, through the new media, to endanger the lives of thousands across the country. It’s the cheapest form of terrorism and there must be specific controls on this kind of reckless propaganda.
What about governments: both the Centre and the states have acted, barring Maharashtra, limply. Karnataka provided coaches to enable people to leave. That tells us a lot about its interest or capacity to fight the fear psychosis and is a stain on any elected government. Ministers, officials, opposition leaders and civil society groups should have camped at railway platforms to persuade people not to go and not left until they had succeeded.
For years, the people of the North-east, especially the young, have been voting with their feet: moving away from the conflict and the nightmares that accompany daily life in places such as Manipur and Nagaland to places of excellence or even mediocre education centres to get away from the stifling atmosphere of stress, dread of the armed groups and security forces and lack of opportunities at home.
Draconian laws in the North-east also cause a discriminatory form of citizenship (the uniformed personnel are protected, the ordinary and ‘insurgents’ are targeted and Indians outside the region are untouched). So, people from that region at times suffer double discrimination although I know many who have done well and are respected for their professionalism and as individuals.
The exodus underlines an uncomfortable truth: that many of the migrants feel either insecure or socially unaccepted in these urban centres. The poison of insidious ignorance has spread far, deep and wide well before the latest hate campaign.
One of the reasons why ignorance about the region persists is the failure, until now, of the education curricula to reflect its history and complex sociology. These gaps must be plugged through textbooks, from school through to college and university level. The media too needs to do its research adequately for we have seen how ignorance can become lethal.
The sting of racial discrimination permeates northern India and it is well documented. While the more ‘civilised’ southern and western India may have been shaken to see this streak of intolerance emerging from within, it also presents an opportunity to do two things — tackle the hate-mongers with the full force of the law and send civil society leaders, politicians and officials to the homes of those who have left to bring them back with dignity and honour.
In the North-east too, genuine settlers and migrants from other parts of the country have felt the sting of discrimination and even violence. It would be hypocritical for us to look the other way and point the finger accusingly at Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune. What about incidents in the North-east itself where people from neighbouring states have been picked on even though they have nothing to do with illegal migrants. We must have the courage to confront our own shortcomings.
A nephew of mine, who has lived in Bengaluru for over 20 years, is now a reporter at a Kannada news channel and speaks the language fluently. I'm proud of that and the fact that while thousands have gone, there are many who have stayed on, demonstrating their silent commitment to the Idea of India.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for North East Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed by the author are personal.