NE Minority Question?

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The contentious issue of minorities as per the general Indian understanding is curious in more ways than one for those of us in the Northeast. As is evident, in India by the term minority what is generally meant are the country’s Muslims, forming a small 13.4 percent of the country’s total population (2001 population census), but in terms of numbers this translate into 138 million (2001 population census), making for the second largest concentration of people to the religion in any country after Indonesia. In other words, India has more Muslim citizens than any single Islamic country in the world except Indonesia.

Yet by Indian standards, this is a minority. It must however be conceded indeed, as events in the post colonial India have been witness, they have been victims of most of the religious communal riots in the country. For historical reasons, in these riots, Muslims have been almost always pitted against the majority Hindu community and most of the time at their cost. No dispute about it that they therefore may need the protections proposed to be introduced by the bill in question.

While one has very little to say on this aspect of the bill, there is however a very serious flaw in the entire approach to the issue from the point of view of the Northeast. The bill does not acknowledge there are many different kinds of minorities in the country, and that again the idea of “minority” is very much contextual.

One of course alludes here to the situation in the Northeast chiefly, but not necessarily exclusively. In this region, the picture evoked by the idea of minority is not so much in terms of religion, but ethnicity, and not without reasons too. As of today, unlike in the Indian subcontinent’s pre-Partition days, the so called minority Muslims of India would easily, and overwhelmingly too, outnumber many of the small ethnic communities inhabiting the NE region. The related ethnic frictions as well as apprehensions would also be significantly different, and these concerns are what have been totally ignored all the years since Indian independence and unfortunately even today as is now painfully evident in the endless debates on Indian satellite television channels and newspapers in the run up to the proposed introduction of a new law on minority protection.

This is unfortunate, and perhaps the intelligentsia in the Northeast has to share a greater part of the blame for as they say, if you do not write or speak up about yourself, others will write and speak about you. This has been the case for a long time, but the correction to this anomaly in self representation is still not complete as is again showing up now.

A more representative approach to the issue would be to not think of “religious minorities” only, but also “national minorities”. Communities that are not exactly of the mainstream national communities, who belong to non-mainstream cultures and speak non-mainstream languages, also are also extremely vulnerable today, and this concern is what needs to be pushed strongly. This push, to underscore the point, has to come from the Northeast intelligentsia first and foremost so that others can pick up the debate from the flags they raise on the issue.

Again, it is also true that a minority community in the nation may not be a minority within a state of India. As for instance, Sikhs may be a minority in the country, but they obviously are not in Punjab. But the nuances go deeper, and this is more relevant in the case of the small and demographically vulnerable groups of Northeast India. As for instance, within the territory of a state (province) a particular community may be the majority, but in the region they belong to, they can still be a tiny minority, hence suffer from a “minority complex” despite being the majority in their state. Take for instance Mizoram. In this state, the Mizos form an overwhelming and often hegemonic majority, but in the region the state belongs to, which includes the populous Barak Valley, they would be a tiny minority against the Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims combined).

This being the case, the often heard allegation that Mizos are being unreasonably xenophobic about plainsmen Indian (in their term, Vai) would likely be a case of a total misreading of the situation. Without this natural wariness of outsiders, the Mizos could easily have ended up marginalized in their own land, as has happened to neighbouring Tripura. The same was the logic which came into play in Bhutan when the country decided to push away Nepali immigrants three decades ago from South Bhutan. Inhuman though it may have seemed, there was a legitimate reason for the Bhutanese to fear what happened to Sikkim a decade earlier.

Although it has been so well camouflaged, demography often becomes a sinister articulation of political will of dominant interests. The Gramscian notion of “idea hegemony” has been so perfectly made to be internalized that even speaking up about genuine apprehensions of self preservation by small ethnic groups hosting unprecedented waves of immigrants in recent times have today been made to seem unconditionally condemnable politically, and inhuman as well.

Containing xenophobia

Indeed, this tricky situation of how these small ethnic communities in the Northeast should handle the migrant issue comes to the fore routinely and often violently. The issue was on the forefront again in a macabre and tragic way in Manipur recently after the inhuman, savage and cowardly bomb attack killing nine impoverished economic migrants in Imphal. Although the assailants have not come public, it is anybody’s guess the attack feeds on the popular fear of a demographic invasion which is predicted to tip the population balance of the state sooner than later.

The state government understandably did not taking the matter lightly, considering that in the past too, such threats had resulted in the heinous murders of several impoverished economic migrants from outside the state, mostly from the poverty stricken regions of Bihar, Orissa and Bangladesh. Since these migrants are spread out thinly all over the state, they are extremely vulnerable to attacks by the armed men targeting them, and there would virtually be no foolproof means for the police to protect them.

For one thing, the migrants are mostly daily wage earners and unless desperate, they would not agree to be herded into police protected camps, setting up of which has become the normal recourse of the government in such circumstances, for then they would lose their livelihoods. But since the threat is there, the government would have no other way of reacting than to step up its area security covers in vulnerable zones, and this measure, the government has already ordered.

While we hope none of the savage tragedies of the recent past see a repeat, it is pertinent nonetheless to examine the issue from different lenses too. There is no gainsaying that the current waves of xenophobia are shared by a sizeable section of the society. This is not always on account of the usual explanation of the danger of ethnic marginalisation of indigenous communities, but also for certain very peculiar economic reasons.

The fact that the ones to most resent the presence of the migrants are local poor and not so much the rich should provide a clue. The rich sections would for many reason welcome the migrants for they provide cheap labour alternatives. The poorer sections, marked among others by exclusion from the white collar job market, on the other hand would see the migrants as usurpers of their opportunities. Desperate as migrants generally are, they also always end up dragging wages down, for they would be willing work for half or more of the local wage rates in order to be able to work. Outwardly, the expression of this resentment is not generally articulated in economic terms, but would be on the other hand translated into the much more easily understood plebeian language of ethnic hatred and xenophobia, with obscure street politicians catalysing and fanning this hatred for their own ends.

While the murderous flare ups are unfortunate and deserve nothing less than the severest condemnation, it must be recalled the phenomenon is not peculiar to Manipur alone. It is repeated in all other states where economic migration takes place. Mumbai has seen a liberal dose of this malaise, so has Assam. In many ways, deep down these assaults are not out of simply raw xenophobia. They can also be seen as an extreme and vulgar form of economic reaction.

Such analyses are necessary so that the government would have more clues on how the menace can be tackled on a longer term. The plea is for the government not drop its guards. It is not just about embarrassment before the nation and world, but of the tragedy of senseless loss of human lives. In the short run, it must do everything to prevent these hate crimes.

But it must have a long term strategy too and it is in this that the analysis of the causes of these tensions must become important factors. The labour market theory is one such, but also the deep insecurity of the local communities against being ultimately outnumbered by waves after waves of migration must also be addressed in a sublimated but substantive manner, for indeed this fear is not altogether without reason. The Tripura case is an example, and today so is Assam heading the same direction. It must be remembered demography in a democracy is directly linked to political power, democracy being in more ways than one, a number game. Some effective regulatory mechanisms to allay this fear must be thought of, otherwise, xenophobia and related hate crimes will continue to surface periodically and perhaps may even reach nightmarish proportions as in the case of the infamous Nellie massacre in Assam in the Naogong district 26 years ago on February 18, 1983 on the eve of an Assam Assembly election.

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