AUGUST 25: The conduct of the citizens of Pune in the wake of the panic-driven exodus of northeastern students and professionals from the city calls for a round of applause. The sight of thousands of them crowding the platforms of the main railway station to head homewards triggered a wave of sympathy across party lines and social schisms. It translated into concrete actions to provide food, shelter and security to the hapless victims of violence and intimidation. The aim was to calm their fears and to persuade them to continue to study and work in this thriving hub of education, culture, state-of-the-art technology and innovative entrepreneurship.
Though the fears have not altogether abated, the response of the citizens of Pune has had the desired impact. The number of northeasterners eager to return home swiftly thinned down to a trickle after the first three days of mass departures. Indeed, in one instance, a score of them, who were all set to board the train for the journey home, were persuaded to stay back. It took the activists of a civil society group — the Sane Guruji Tarun Mandal — close to four hours to convince them that all arrangements would be made to ensure their safety and well-being. And that is what came to pass. Many families volunteered to keep them in their homes until they could resume their activities without having to look over their shoulder.
Another remarkable response came from several Muslim organisations. They went out of their way to invite the northeasterners to join in the Eid celebrations and used the occasion to drive home the point that members of the Muslim community, together with citizens professing other faiths, would strain every nerve to make the victims feel both safe and welcome. The most impressive gathering took place in Kondhwa where rumours of an impending attack on them were rife. Here, at a meeting organised by the Madrasah Baitul Uloom in the presence of senior police officials, leading politicians, civil society activists and government representatives from Nagaland and Manipur, speaker after speaker harped on the need to maintain communal harmony. And they debunked in no uncertain terms the criminal acts of certain (unnamed) individuals and outfits that sought to disturb the peace.
Meanwhile, members of students` unions affiliated to the main political parties — Congress, NCP and BJP — went from college to college to offer assistance. They set up helplines, created social networking sites, plastered posters expressing their solidarity with their fellow students from the northeast and distributed stickers bearing the same message. Leaders of the parties in the city, including the mayor, reached out to them as well. All spoke in one voice: we stand by you come what may.
This is an altogether rare occurrence for there are undoubtedly more fractious and argumentative Indians per square kilometre in Pune than in any other part of the country. Unrelenting dissent is indeed the bane of public institutions and events in the city. Contrarian views fly thick and fast on every conceivable issue ranging from potholes and garbage collection to literary, historical and philosophical matters. As the late P L Deshpande, the most popular Marathi writer for decades, remarked: `To remain silent when a flaw in a person is obvious is, in the eyes of the Puneri, no sign of civility. He revels in the fact that his fusillade of cutting words left that person gasping for breath.`
In these circumstances, the spectacle of Pune`s leading citizens making common cause to rush to the defence of people from the northeast is akin to a divine apparition. How long this spirit of solidarity will prevail is hard to say. Some argue that sooner than later the cynical outlook of the Puneris is bound to get the upper hand. Others, however, advance another, more upbeat view. The prompt and generous response to the plight of the northeasterners reflects, in their view, the vast demographic, cultural and economic changes the city has experienced over the past two decades. The population is young, cosmopolitan, energetic and ambitious — a far cry from the image of the city as a pensioners` paradise. What matters for the moment, however, is that Puneris showed both grace and compassion under pressure. (Courtesy: TOI)