Millennium Post

The great panic migration

By the time this article appears in print, the number of people displaced by ethnic violence in Assam since 20 July will probably have crossed the five lakh mark, making this the largest internal migration in India, comparable to the cross-border influx during Partition or the Bangladesh war. Thousands of people from the northeast who migrated to mainland cities, especially Bangalore, but also to Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune, are fleeing in panic to their ‘home’ states.

However, returning home isn’t returning to safety, witness the killings on the trains carrying migrants, and the horrific conditions in refugee camps in Kokrajhar and elsewhere in Assam, where epidemics related to contaminated water and appalling sanitation conditions are breaking out amidst a total absence of healthcare, aggravating one of India’s worst humanitarian crises.

This great panic migration was triggered by rumours of impending attacks conveyed through bulk SMSs and emails based on fake or morphed images calculated to provoke. Some of these depict Muslims being targeted in Burma or by people presumed to be from India’s northeast because of their physical features, stereotyped as ‘chinky’ or ‘Mongoloid’ in a racist manner.

The purveyors of these SMSs are cynically capitalising on widespread ignorance in mainland India about the ethnic and linguistic differences between Bodos and Mizos, Khasis and Assamese, and Meiteis and Nagas [themselves divided into a dozen tribes]. The motive is to brand certain groups as enemies – to instigate physical attacks on them.

India’s home secretary R K Singh has named Pakistan as the main source of these bulk mailings, and Home Minister Sushikumar Shinde has urged his Pakistani counterpart Rehman Malik to act against the miscreants. Some Islamist extremists in Pakistan could well be behind this disinformation campaign, hyperbolically termed ‘cyber-war’ or ‘psy-jihad’. But according to Indian security agencies, a large majority of the 240-odd suspect web sites/pages are based in India. At work here, to deadly effect, is the manufacture of rumour and panic by using easily accessible modern means of communication and tools such as Photoshop, which can be manipulated even by amateurs to morph pictures and pass them off as real. This speaks to the grave danger of abuse of these technologies.

The worst culprits here are probably not the social media web sites, accessed by a relatively small minority, but SMSs which can be widely disseminated. The concerned state governments have abjectly failed to protect northeastern migrants against chauvinist, communal and racist attacks. Instead, to their shame, they organised specially chartered trains so people will leave cities like Bangalore en masse.

The engineering of this forced mass migration showed that the authorities willingly abdicated their responsibility towards vulnerable citizens. It also showed that Indian citizens don’t trust the government to defend their life and limb against hate crimes.

However, what about the violence in Assam, which the state government has still not brought fully under control? The death toll in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts [BTAD] of Kokrajhar, Bongaingaon and Chirang, and in the adjoining Dhubri district, has crossed 70 amidst massive displacement and insecurity.

There is very little clarity about the proximate causes of the conflict, barring a tussle over an attempt by some Muslims to permanently occupy a plot of land near Kokrajhar for Eid prayers. The national media has not bothered to report in depth on the situation and the humanitarian crisis. 

This speaks of colossal callousness within the national mainstream towards a region that every government and every national party claims belongs irrevocably to India, even more integrally and organically than Jammu and Kashmir. Few in mainland India comprehend the absurdity of claiming such territorial ownership when they exhort the northeast’s people to become ‘confident citizens’ of the nation while minimising the injustices, violence and bloodshed heaped upon them, not least through draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

This monumental incomprehension has not prevented commentators and self-appointed experts – many of whom lack even nominal acquaintance with the northeastern region – from attributing the BTAD clashes to the supposedly ‘increasing influx’ of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the Bodos’ fears of being swamped under it in their own ‘homeland’.

The standard theology runs thus. Muslims from Bangladesh, often termed ‘infiltrators’, as distinct from Bengali-speaking Hindu ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ who cross the border illegally, are pouring into Assam just as they did in the early 20th century. They are illegally grabbing the Bodos’ land and changing the region’s demography. The resultant resentment is at the root of the recent clashes.

However, this militates against several material facts. For one, Bangladesh has recently recorded higher human development indices than India, thus weakening the ‘push factor’ for migration to one of India’s poorer pockets. For another, better border fencing has reduced the influx of very poor Bangladeshis to a trickle. For a third, Kokrajhar’s Muslim population only increased from 17 to 20 per cent of the total between 1971 and 2001. This is hardly alarming.

Considering that the Bodos have a political monopoly over BTAD and therefore no motive to move out, this relative decrease can only be explained by out-migration of non-Bodos, including Bengali-speaking Muslims. What’s under way in BTAD is competition between two production systems: the Bodos’ subsistence single-crop economy and the Muslims’ commercially-oriented multi-crop economy. This is allowing the Muslims to buy land.

Another source of conflict is over political representation in the larger Western Assam region, where the Muslims have made gains using fair democratic instruments. The Bodos succeeded in driving Muslims out – in 1992-1992, 1996 and 2010, but failed this time around. The Bodos form only 20 per cent of BTAD’s population and don’t enjoy social-economic hegemony. 

In the last analysis, the culprit here is the Centre’s misguided policy of creating ‘homelands’ for tribals in pockets of the northeast even when they are a small proportion of their population. Rectifying this approach demands a broad vision for the region as a whole, and great sensitivity to it. This is missing. [IPA]
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