Assam violence: Has Indian nationhood failed to embrace the NE community?

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The panic in Bangalore, and to a lesser extent some other Indian cities, among North-East communities, has once again brought to the fore the vexed question of whether the people from this peripheral region — even those who have come to be domiciles of major Indian cities — have managed to emotionally and spiritually integrate with the rest of the country.

The panic, it is now evident, was on account of a systematic and sinister campaign on the social media that the Muslim community in these cities have served quit notices to residents from the NE and that those who defy these notices would be killed after the holy month of Ramzan. The supposed reason for this “diktat” was the attacks on Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants by Bodos in Assam and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) state, therefore all “ chinkis” must be made to pay.

A few mysterious unexplained attacks, seemingly organised ones, on NE students and young professionals by unidentified ruffians were indeed reported from Pune, and these incidents led credence to further rumours spread on the internet of other savage attacks on Northeasterners in other parts the country. By the time the rumours were somewhat contained, an exodus of Northeasterners had begun, and from Bangalore alone, according to a report, the railways confirmed 4,793 tickets booked for Guwahati in a single day.

It is now more or less certain the sinister drama was being systematically orchestrated. With this knowledge, inevitably the dust will settle sooner than later. The question is, should the matter be allowed to end with this? A festering sore of a sensitive and beleaguered section of the Indian society has been reopened, and surely it is not just a return to normalcy which should be the prescription for the healing process.

Since the rumour-mongers left internet footprints, it should not be difficult for the police to track them down. Only such an official initiative would be the surest assurance of security and justice to those at the receiving end of the markedly racial and extremely dangerous plot.

But some larger questions remain to be answered. They point to a failure of Indian nationhood to embrace the NE region in spirit. One of the recurrent voices of outrage on many NE internet forums in the wake of the Bangalore incident was that though the attackers may be few, by their very indifference to these attacks, the larger public were also willing executioners, accentuating the Northeasterner’s sense of being outcasts in these societies.

That the attacks targeted the NE as a whole and equally that fact that the NE as a collective saw themselves as one in their shared sense of persecution and degradation, and fled together, also points to the existence of this unfortunate psychological divide between “mainstream” continental India and the NE.

Sadder still, the profile of this division is racial in nature, therefore the “Chinkis” were all the same. Probably the reverse is equally true, and to the “Chinki” from the NE, the “Indian” is a racial category. They can thus be Indian citizens but not “Indians”.

This yet-to-be-bridged divide was what was played out in Bangalore. It is replayed every time a Chinese dignitary visits the country and NE residents in New Delhi are rounded up along with Tibetan refugees as preventive measures against any embarrassing public protest.

This indignity is a daily reality of the average Mary and Beth from the NE waiting at the restaurants in various Indian metropolises to which they have come to immune themselves. This reality is also what slowly but inevitably pushes them all into the NE ghetto in these cities.

The Bangalore drama had been preceded by the outrage over the suicide by 23-year-old management student, Dana M Sangma, from Meghalaya at Amity University, Gurgaon, over a public insult by a teacher on April 24. A week before, that was the assault and violent death of 19-year-old architecture student Richard Loitam from Manipur at Acharya NRV School of Architecture, Bangalore.

One more angle needs to be taken into account when one tries to assess the Bangalore drama. The attacks on NE residents were supposedly in retaliation to the murderous riots between the Bodos and Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants. Even if it were to be assumed the Bodos were the sole aggressors in the Assam incident, there can be no justification in equating them with the attacks in Bangalore.

This distinction has to do with the qualitative difference between xenophobia and racism. While neither can be condoned, it must still be said that xenophobia is the manifestation of a small and weak, often tribal, community’s fear of being pushed to the margin and insignificance. It is in this sense a self-preservative response.

Racism on the other hand is about an irrational hatred, particularly by a dominant community, of the other. The former is prompted by desperate fear; the latter is driven by sweeping hatred. Which form of prejudice applies in the present case should be obvious.

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