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Ethnic threat

The good, the bad and the downright ugly


SANJOY HAZARIKA is director, Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and founder, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Guwahati

The best of times has turned into the worst of times for the North-East. The cheers of national pride for Olympian boxer Mary Kom have been drowned out by ugly ethnic threats. It's time to go beyond quick-fix solutions.

It's taken barely a week for Manipuri boxer Mary Kom and the blaze of glory that accompanied her bronze medal at the Olympics to be swept aside by the mess overwhelming the North-East and different parts of the country. Soon after her return, headlines and noisy anchors proclaimed how this was showing the path forward for her home state and the North-East - and cash awards showered on her (different ministries were competing as if it were the Olympic 100-metre dash to 'own' the boxer).

Yet, all this was forgotten when trouble first erupted in Mumbai at a Muslim rally where a mob attacked the police, burned vehicles and went on the rampage especially after inflammatory speeches. The violence there grew out of a morphed MMS clip that picked up selective incidents from across the world, and circulated these as assaults against Muslims in Assam and in Myanmar (against the Rohingya Muslim group). But, as one organiser was to tell a reporter afterward, 80 per cent of those who came "did not even know where Assam was. "

That's a pretty telling commentary which should make us reflect on a range of issues: While general ignorance of different parts of the country and especially the North-East is well-known, it tells us also that virtually no one in the country of any stature (barring a few MPs, politicians and scholars) is aware of the fact that the map of India includes Assam because just before Partition, one man, Gopinath Bardoloi, then Premier of Assam (as chief ministers were then called) with the support of the Congress Party in the state and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stood up and refused its incorporation into East Pakistan. This had been virtually proposed by the Cabinet Mission, to which both Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were agreeable. Who teaches this during courses on Indian independence in schools, colleges and universities? Who knows it in the media? No wonder ignorance is so dangerously widespread. That remark in Mumbai also reflects the uncontrollable power of the Internet and the growing danger of visible, vicious propaganda through social networking sites and the new media. This is the other, ugly side of the so-called 'citizen journalist' so lauded by some of our broadcasters. Splicing together a bunch of unrelated events to create a sequence of apparent violence in a bid to trigger chaos it's one of the cheapest ways of disrupting social and political systems.

The exodus of North-Eastern youth and professionals from Bangalore and other towns is a stark reminder of how vulnerable they are, both at home and in their adopted homes;racial stigma and the sting of discrimination is not just an allegation, it is a vicious reality that is driving thousands back to the very conditions they fled or left to start a new life;in the process, a new set of rumours and suspicions will sweep their families and neighbourhoods once they return, harming both the legal process of migration as well as the security of people from the states where they have left. There are a few discussion groups comprising people from the North-East which I have observed - but rarely taken part in because issues become so polemical and personalised - where comments are vicious without considering the possibility that this kind of vacuous bitterness can lead to repercussions on vulnerable groups everywhere (including themselves). The state governments from where the exodus is taking place as well as the governments of the North-Eastern states must act, sending senior representatives to bring these migrants back. As a result of all this, governments at the Centre and the States may be forced into considering and designing new, greater powers to snoop on and capture users of the www or crack down on various servers and search machines So even as Mary Kom and her staggering achievement vanish from the priorities of media, governments and 'civil society', we are left with enduring questions about what will bring about sustainable change to the North-East. Or what makes an Indian 'Indian'.

To the latter: a citizen must be free to move across the country and settle permanently except in those areas where there are specific controls as in Jammu and Kashmir and parts of the North-East. The second is that the State must protect individuals and groups who are either harmed by direct violence or threatened by intimidation.

The third relates to the emotive issue of illegal migration and the need to curb it through a series of steps including the issue of identity cards to citizens. This is part of a set of proposals relating to migration that I had first made nearly 20 years back. Once the latter is in place, Work Permits for non-nationals (Bangladeshis and otherwise), relating only to limited periods of work and not settlement or purchase of permanent assets, could be considered. This is a proposal I had nearly made nearly 20 years ago.

In addition, we need to recognize that people like Mary Kom and others, lesser known or unknown, have gotten to where they have not because of the support of the State but despite its lack;they have received unstinting backing from their families and coaches.

How many had heard of Mary Kom before these Olympics, even though the BBC had made a documentary on her, paying tribute to her extraordinary courage and determination to go the distance despite lack of proper training facilities or sponsors, and that too in Manipur, one of the most troubled parts of the country? And yet, though Manipur and Assam hosted the national games over the past years, much of the infrastructure lies in tatters or is little used.

This also shows the complete disconnect between the State and its people: instead of putting millions into projects such as highways, bridges and dams which are rarely completed but certainly delayed and often poorly made, the Indian government and its many ministries should have invested in human resources, in people and building the capacity of organizations, using incremental steps through community driven projects based on natural advantage (fruit processing, floriculture and sports to mention just three). There are examples of this working, such as the remarkable International Fund for Agriculture Development which works in hundreds of villages in three states because it has ground level support and involvement. Gigantism doesn't deliver. There is another fundamental issue which has thrown up another 'icon' from Manipur. Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger strike for a decade demanding the repeal of the draconian armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The Act was first implemented in undivided Assam in 1958 and is now used across the region (54 years down the line) despite the fact that the insurgencies have abated and are in a process of negotiation. If the Centre is serious about its so-called Look East Policy, it needs to address this huge contradiction: it cannot expect entrepreneurs from India or South East Asia to beat a path to the North-East while continuing to invest the security forces with sweeping powers of immunity and impunity. This, despite its own claims that the insurgency situation is far better today than it has been in decades (the Bodo-Muslim riots have nothing to do with insurgency but were triggered by assertions over rights to control land and resources and not by the simplistic mantra of illegal migration which the right-wing would have us believe). Quick-fix solutions may be good for the short term but rarely last beyond the immediate. The manufacture of consent cannot be a remedy for a lack of political and economic sustainability. The latter comes from building blocks based on trust and inclusion.

The exodus from Bangalore and the triumph of Mary Kom, the lack of a sense of citizenship, the sting of discrimination are all part of this complex process that challenges the Idea of India.

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