At Twenty Feet High, a restaurent on Bangalore's MG Road, all the ten waiters are from the North-Eastern state of Manipur. All the six males are Nagas, the four female waiters are Kukis. Back home, the two tribes have a recent history of bloodletting over conflicting homeland demands, but in far-off Bangalore, these ten men and women, mostly in their twenties, lived and worked together, shared good times and dreams, until the rumours started that they will be attacked. All because they were from the North-East and stood out because of their East Asian looks. By the weekend, all of them were heading back home.
"Neighbours told us we should not take a chance because Muslims angry with attacks on their people in Assam were planning to attack us. We told them we are from Manipur, which is far away from Assam but they said it is all the same," said Angelina Kuki, one of the waitresses at Twenty Feet High.
The Muslim reactions were first noticed at Mumbai's Azad Maidan, where a rally organised by Raza Academy, to protest against the killings of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar's Rakhine province, turned violent. Police had to open fire to control the mob after large scale arson and brickbatting. Soon Bangalore and other cities down South with a sizeable population of North-Easterners and Muslims were abuzz with rumours that revenge attacks will start against the "Chinkies" (North-Easterners with Mongoloid looks). "That shows how ignorant the rest of the country is about the North-East. Something happens in Assam and all of us from the North-East are punished," says Julia Kharkhongor, a call centre worker from Meghalaya, bringing home the point that though ethnic, linguistic and religious identities divide people in India's North-East as perhaps nowhere else in the country, but outside the region, a "North-Eastern identity" has come to stay.
"It is like Biharis becoming Biharis when they leave Bihar. In the state, they are all identified by caste or religion or by the region of the state they hail from, but it is outside Bihar that they are identified as Biharis. Same with those from the North-East, they suffer being clubbed together elsewhere in India," says sociologist Urmila Talukdar, worried about her son who studies engineering in Bangalore. "He does not have my looks, he is more like my Ahom husband whose looks are distinctly Mongoloid."
This is what leads Sanjib Baruah, the North-East's best known political scientist, to allege that North-Easterners are subjected to "racial profiling" elsewhere in India. Even Mizoram's Congress chief minister Lalthanhawla made this allegation at a seminar in Singapore two years ago. The North-East is India's Mongoloid fringe, a region where India looks less and less Indian and more and more like the highlands of Southeast Asia, a region that links the Indo-Gangetic civilisation with that of Southeast Asia. The ancestry of many of the region's "indigenous" peoples is actually rooted in Southwest China, Myanmar or further away in Southeast Asia.
"So here are Indians who look more like the Chinese and that causes unease amongst people elsewhere in the country. Regardless of all the big talk of national integration, this is how the North-East is perceived in mainland India, a region of troublesome, difficult and, most importantly, different people," says Xonzoi Barbora of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' Guwahati Campus.
Over the past few years, this profiling has had some adverse effects. Students from the North-East, like Richard Loitam in Bangalore, were beaten to death over hostel squabbles, some commited suicides over humiliations, girls were raped and then advised to put on "proper Indian clothes". A lifestyle columnist with a leading daily paper referred to girls from the North-East working in the nation's hospitality industry as "worthless Lindas of the North-East." Shah Rukh Khan did not miss out on this racial tension when, in Chak de India, his burly Punjabi defender advised the nippy half-back Mary Ralte from Manipur to "learn Punjabi before coming to play hockey for India".
But the current scare that is forcing thousands of North-Easterners back to their region from India's Silicon Valley could have much greater repercussions. Here is a generation in the North-East who may value their distinct identity but have voted with their feet against the pernicious separatism of the yesteryear. They are tired with the ceaseless conflicts back home and have made a conscious decision to leave the North-East for greener pastures elsewhere in the country. The post-1990 economic boom has sucked in these hunters of fortune from the path of confrontation with India and actually weakened the roots of ethnic separatism back in the region.
"The fact that we are in mainland India for jobs and education or whatever reasons means we believe in India. We are as much Indian as any Verma or Sharma, Subramaniam or Solkar," says software programmer Kunjabehari Singh from Manipur. His namesake was the chairman of the separatist People's Liberation Army before he was killed in an encounter with the Indian army in April 1982. "Now if we cannot pursue our careers or education in the mainland and have to return home in such situations, the separatist propaganda will triumph," says Kunjabehari's friend Laisram Dhiren.
Let's hope that does not happen, but the dangers of networking in a hi-tech environment with powerful social media, Internet and Mobile phones has been too obvious to miss out. In the 1983 Assam riots, 1800 Muslims of Bengali origin were killed in one Assamese village, Nellie. Though the sleepy village made it into the covers of the national media, it did not provoke Muslim reactions elsewhere in India. Bodo separatist rebels attacked many non-Bodo minorities, including Muslims during the 1990s, without provoking any reactions.
"We are not against Indian Muslims, we are fighting against Bangladeshi settlers who are taking over our land," says Kuladip Bodo in an Internet post after the incidents in Mumbai and Bangalore. The conflict in Assam is certainly not religious, despite efforts by religiously-motivated politicians on both sides. One third of Assam's thirty million people are Muslims - but most of them are of East Bengali origin, whose ancestors were first brought to Assam by the British to tame the chars (river islands) and grow more food.
"The trouble is that Congress governments in post-British Assam have also encouraged this migration to create vote banks. That upsets the indigenous people," says Samujjal Bhattacharya, chief advisor of the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The AASU ran a six-year agitation to oust the illegal migrants from what is now Bangladesh but called it off to sign an accord with the Centre in 1985. The AASU alleges that the Assam Accord could not be implemented and the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh never went away.
Assam's restive tribes like the Bodos who have fought for separate homelands and finally settled for autonomous areas, now resent the growing population of Muslims of Bengali origin in their areas. Some like the Rabhas want autonomous homelands, which is opposed by these Muslims because they fear "aggression backed by administrative power" like in the Bodoland Autonomous Council. Western and Central Assam is home to this huge nativist-settler friction, a powder keg waiting to explode. And explode it did in July as armed Bodos and Muslims, many members of militant groups, went for each other. As usual, rumours following a murder sparked it off, but the state government dithered and delayed calling out the army before it had no choice, as the violence snowballed out of control. The army was also slow to get off the blocks but weeks after its deployment, the tension simmers and regular incidents of kidnap and murder continue to happen in western Assam.
More than a quarter of a million people, more Muslims than Bodos, are in makeshift camps in what is easily a major internal displacement crisis, but one that the region is familiar with. A quarter of a million people were displaced in western Assam when Bodo rebels went on the rampage in 1996-97, attacking non-Bodo minorities like Bengali Hindus and Muslims, Nepalis and Adivasis (descendants of central Indian tribespeople), to back their demand for a separate homeland. But this time, like in the 2008 riots in Central Assam districts like Darrang and Udalguri, the clash has turned out to be one between Muslims of settler origins and other indigenous communities.
Even the pro-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has backed the Bodos. This ULFA faction is negotiating with Delhi, demanding greater protection for indigenous communities against what they allege to be "ceaseless infiltration from Bangladesh." So, the arc of conflict is likely to spread in Assam, with ever greater efforts at religious polarisation - but that will surely provoke Muslim reactions elsewhere in the country, making anybody and everybody from the North-East a target. Instead of national integration, we are likely to see integration of conflicts across the whole country.
- Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent, and author of 'Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India's North-East'