Starting the fire
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Starting the fire

The recent strife in Assam and the ripple effects in the rest of India point to an insidious game being played by extremists. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Aug 18, 2012 03:10 IST
Barkha Dutt,Hindu-Muslim riots,hindustan times

Social scientists have argued - with some optimism - that India may finally be entering a 'Post-Riot' phase of maturity in her evolution as a democracy. Academics like Ashutosh Varshney have documented how eight cities of India accounted for 46% of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots between 1950 and 1995, simultaneously arguing that India has mirrored the global trend of seeing a decline in riots as economic growth increases.

But, perhaps even more frightening than the episodic eruption of large-scale communal violence is an entrenched set of social hierarchies and biases that provide ready-made trump cards for an insidious hand of identity politics to be played. As Varshney concedes, a decline in riots does not necessarily correspond with a decline in prejudice. Add to that, the divisions drawn by an ideological polarisation in our political discourse - and we find ourselves living with a perennial fire-warning against inflammable outbursts of hate campaigns.

The shameful departure of thousands of people originally from the North-East but settled in other cities - has forced India into an existential soul-searching conversation, as she turns a slightly-depressed 65. Our secularism, our capacity to find a pan-Indian identity that rises above religion and region, our belief in the ability to co-exist happily in a multi-faith, multi-lingual society - is what has defined our self-image since Independence. It is our secular self-confidence that argued in favour of granting asylum to persecuted minorities from Pakistan who might seek refuge. We argued then that the nature of the Pakistani State, the subsequent creation of Bangladesh, the sectarian violence against Shia Muslims, the brutal discrimination against the Ahmadis were evidence that Jinnah's two-nation dream had been buried under the avalanche of history. There is no doubt that there are primarily two things that make the Indian State distinctive - our democracy and Diversity.

Yet, here is the great Indian paradox. We commemorated August 15 pleased with the complex menu that only our desi melting pot can throw up. And yet, this was the same week where the debate around the violence in Assam - and the subsequent ripple effects from Mumbai to Bangalore - became a conversation about the very future of our nationhood.

The fact that rumours, threats, falsified images on Facebook and Twitter, and in some cases attacks were able to rupture the sense of social order has to make one wonder how deep the fault-lines were to begin with.

Since the 1985 Assam Accord, the issue of illegal migration - Muslims from Bangladesh - has remained an unsettled political and social controversy that returns to the headlines only in times of crisis. The immediate dispute over land and economic resources in Lower Assam being denied to the local people and being appropriated by migrants has provided an antagonistic political framework for the extremists among both Hindus and Muslims.

The 'send-them-back' slogan oversimplifies the difficulties in identifying the 'outsiders' and offers no guarantees that all Muslims will not be picked upon and shunted out. Equally, groups like Badruddin Ajmal's All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) propagate a radicalised brand of politics for which he is now seeking a pan-Muslim national platform. Despite his denials, his group is among those under the scanner for the repulsive vandalism in Mumbai. The Mumbai violence - triggered in part by the falsified online images of alleged atrocities against the Rohingyas in Burma - has now provided the perfect launchpad for a cycle of competitive extremism.

Whisper campaigns about reprisals and threats have spread like a forest fire from state to state resulting in a fear psychosis among the gentlest of our fellow-citizens. Often at the receiving end of a reprehensible racism, social bullying and snarky, insensitive colloquialisms - our people from the North-East were perhaps less willing than others may have been to take the chance that their neighbours or their employers would come to their rescue, should the need arise. When quizzed by reporters, most have denied receiving any direct threats. Yet, so poisoned is the atmosphere today that trust in the ability of the State to provide protection is what has dangerously depleted.

What India has witnessed over the last few weeks, beginning in Assam and tracing its way down from the East to the West and now, startlingly, to the otherwise insulated South of the country - could read straight out of a 'How to start a Riot' manual. Too many events - the self-serving and inflammatory political rhetoric on all sides, the anonymous SMS threats, the fake but mass-circulated images from Burma, the lethal infiltration of religious organisations into mainline parties, the poison propagated on Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the mysterious alacrity with which special trains were organised to the North-East - all of it suggests a systematic attempt at trouble-making with multiple vested interests stoking the embers.

History teaches us that riots are rarely spontaneous and mostly organised. This is not just a case of fanning the flames; it's an attempt to start a fire. That India has held herself together - in however fragile a way - despite cynical politicians and extremist ideologues - is testimony to the innate sagacity of our people. It was heartening to see Parliament rise above partisanship and speak in one voice as it appealed to the North-Eastern citizens to come back to the cities of their residence. But that rare moment of gravitas has followed weeks of petty acrimony and political volatility. Somebody needs to remind our netas that politics is too high a cost to pay when it's the Idea of India that is at stake.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 17, 2012 23:33 IST