Friday, August 24, 2012

A racist wound in north-east India infects the body politic

The following first appeared in The National on August 20, 2012

On Thursday, news from 2,000 kilometres away ruined my plans to spend Eid in Old Delhi. Overnight, thousands of Indians had fled Bangalore after wild rumours about Muslims' attacks on people who "looked north-eastern" and a flood of text messages promising more violence after Ramadan. Many of the people leaving Bangalore were Assamese, headed home to a state that is being devastated by ethnic violence.

As the rumours spread and some credible stories of violence against north-easterners living in other parts of India began to be reported, my wife panicked since I look vaguely like an Indian from the north-east. She refused to let me out of the house for a day, despite the fact that the attacks were happening on the other side of the country. The fear that day was palpable.

The events underlined several of the most unsavoury aspects of Indian society. First and foremost, the mass flight showed that despite decades of relative calm and broad efforts to incorporate north-easterners into the rest of the country, they remain as a group uncomfortable in the rest of India.

The seven states of north-east India share closer ethnic, cultural and linguistic links with neighbouring South-East Asia than the rest of India. Since India's independence, those links have made the allegiances of north-easterners suspect. A myriad of long-running insurgencies have added to suspicions.

Those fears had largely abated as violence decreased over the years, but many north-easterners still feel like outsiders in their own country - a sentiment not helped by incidents of outright racism that occasionally occur.

No one quite knows who started the rumours, but it does seem that the text messages and dire warnings on social media were unfounded rumour and incitement. Ramadan ended without widespread violence.

The Indian government is blaming Pakistan, saying that websites there published inflammatory images and messages designed to rile Muslim sentiment inside India. There may be an element of truth to the allegation since many of the most inflammatory images seem to have been first posted on Pakistani sites, and subsequently picked up by Urdu dailies in India.

On Friday, India's parliament made a rare showing of unity, promising to protect north-easterners. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a speech on the subject with little outcry from the opposition, something that has become a rarity in recent months.

While this was a welcome sight for many Indians - and north-easterners in particular - the truth is that politicians bear a large part of the blame for the climate of fear.

Indian Muslims' anger did not arise in a vacuum. Much of the public outcry against the violence in Assam has put the blame solely on the Muslim community in the state.

When the violence broke out in Assam last month, the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to blame the ruling Congress party. LK Advani, a BJP leader, accused the government of encouraging illegal immigration by Muslims from Bangladesh to bolster its voting base. Leaders of various right-wing Hindu organisations followed suit, proclaiming that Bangladeshis squatting on tribal lands in Assam were the cause of the violence.

The allegation is based in part on anecdotes and census figures, which show a growing majority of Muslims in many districts of Assam. Most of these Muslims, however, have been in Assam for generations. A large portion of them come from families who fled to Assam during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, which ended in Bangladesh's independence. No doubt some are illegal migrants, but to assign one-sided blame and to imply that all Muslims in Assam are there illegally reeks of religious prejudice.

In response to the one-sided dialogue on the causes of the violence in Assam, several Muslim organisations staged protests in Mumbai over the past two weeks, which turned violent. Three people have been killed and dozens wounded. During a similar protest in Lucknow, a right-wing anti-Muslim group posted pictures on Facebook purporting to show Muslims attempting to tear down a Buddhist statue.

The heads of some Muslim organisations have behaved little better than their Hindu counterparts. Some of these groups have accused - without offering proof - right-wing Hindu fundamentalists of being behind the rumours of post-Ramadan violence.

One Indian online news site carried an account that neatly encapsulated the confusion: Firstpost related a story of an Assamese security guard in Hyderabad who was accosted by two men on a motorbike who told him that if he stayed in the city past Eid, he would be killed. A week later, All India Majlis-e-Itthadul Muslimeen, a Muslim political party based in the city, offered him protection; the next day, a member of Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist group, made the same promise. Each side had, in effect, promised to protect him from the other.

Meanwhile, over 10,000 Indians have fled back home to the north-east, where an estimated 400,000 are displaced from their homes in Assam alone. Little has been done to end the violence except to institute curfews and issue shoot-on-sight orders to the increasing number of military patrols. The continuing violence highlights just how ineffectual the government response has been.

All this comes at a time when India should be celebrating the north-east, home to the majority of its Olympians. The Manipuri boxer Mary Kom, one of India's great heroes of London 2012, said in a recently published interview: "We are Indian. Ya, the face is different. But heart is Indian." That she had to say this at all should have all of India engaging in some introspection.