Assam strife: Borders of the mind and partitioned lives

The Yamuna Expressway, a 165-km, six-lane glistening north Indian motorway, which a newspaper aptly described as the Yamunabahn, has cut by half the travel time between Delhi and Agra, the Taj Mahal city. Modern India’s attempts to bring regions economically closer by building ambitious highways are unfortunately contrasted by lack of political efforts to bridge social barriers. Indians continue to live partitioned lives behind invisible combustible lines of class and castes, religion and ethnicity.

There’s no highway yet that effectively cuts through these social walls. Maybe, its time to invest in some sociological infrastructure, not just in miles of asphalt. Maybe, its time India thought about building, apart from roads, some bridges too. Ad hoc measures, such as the CPI’s “mohalla committees”, have been undertaken in the past, but these have by no means been adequate or permanent.

The violence in Assam between Bodo tribesmen and Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants, a devastating if localised conflict, has unwittingly put the country’s fragile social harmony to test.

India’s celebrated economic progress seems to be built on a thinly spread society, still partitioned by internal borders.

Had Kokrajhar, the epicentre of the Assam clashes, been in Dafur, it would have alarmed the international community, particularly because of the scale of the impact. Some 400,000 people have been displaced internally and more than 70 killed. In 2008, similar violence had displaced over 1,50,000.

As rumours of threats and possible backlash from Muslims in other states raced, thousands of people from northeastern states began fleeing Bangalore, Mysore and Mumbai, where they work, for their native places. With relatively better levels of education and skills, youths from Northeast crowd the job markets of most major Indian cities.

Far less noticed were more than a dozen incidents of low-intensity sporadic clashes in Uttar Pradesh over the past month between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in vandalism and deaths. The historical faultline between the two communities has remained largely unbridged because the political class has never considered reconciliation as a national project anytime since the country’s Independence in 1947 after the Partition on religious lines.

Political parties have only responded to the need for a multiculturally cohesive society by classifying themselves as “secular”. In the Indian context, secularism is not only characterized by equality among religions in the eyes of the state, but also by a tendency among political formations to distinguish themselves from some parties that hold Hindutva (literally Hindu-ness) politics, marked by a “Hindu view of India”, as a central dogma.

Such a classification of secularism continues to be challenged by Hindu sectarian political parties, of which the BJP is the largest.

The Assam violence has brought to the fore some new challenges. Television analysts, especially north Indian Muslims, have tended to frame the Assam violence, rather hastily, as essentially a communal riot — a simplistic term for Hindu-Muslim clashes — because this is the type of conflict they are most familiar with. Of course, these are communal clashes to the extent that it is a clash between two communities.

However, undermining the element of ethnicity will lead to a distortion of the fundamental nature of such conflicts, rooted in tribal identities. However, such clashes in Assam do get converted into issues of religion, partly because of pan-India rise of Hindutva politics (Beyond Counterinsurgency, 2011).

The reliance of popular television news media on inadequate resource persons, who are invited to programmes for their quick if inaccurate articulation, has the potential of doing more harm by distorting the debate. This partly may have led Muslim protesters to direct their anger on some television channels in Mumbai recently.

Popular television journalists, such as Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami, have tended to rely on routine talking heads, rather than domain expertise, for helpful analysis. This could be because of television media’s frenetic pace of work that leaves little time for depth and profundity. Or it could well be lazy journalism.

When it comes to issues concerning Muslims, there is a tendency among elite English news channels to tune into the “usual suspects”, ignoring persons who may have a greater locus and who may have done serious work on issues being discussed.

Therefore, we see popular Muslim commentators such as Shahid Siddiqui and Kamal Farooqui, straddle vastly diverse fields in which they have little experience. We see them perform roles of a Muslim politician/Muslim economist/Muslim sociologist/Muslim anthropologist/Muslim academic and Muslim theologian, etc, all rolled in one. For instance, nobody thought of seeking the views of Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura, who I can count on as one of the few experts to have done serious work on the decision-making that went into the horrific Nellie carnage of 1983 in central Assam.

Secondly, the violent protests in Mumbai mirror hidden frustration. It’s building up since a while, I am told. In Maharashtra, Muslims see the war on terror as a war on Muslims, Maulana Bunai Noaim Hasani, a cleric who runs the relatively obscure All India Ulama Board, told me over phone, as I tried to piece the current strife. The disconnect between media and Muslims requires further probe.

While Hindutva politicians rightly rallied behind the threatened northeasterners, their selectivity doesn’t make this some kind of a lasting change of agenda towards forging durable social harmony.

The BJP’s outsourcing of the job of protecting Northeastern people in cities such as Bangalore to stick-wielding cadres of the far-right RSS was a blatant show of extra-constitutional force. Law and order cannot be left to private armies. The existence of such armies is in itself highly egregious. To deploy them for law-enforcement is a crude mistake that went unarticulated.

Where were the RSS cadres who roamed Bangalore’s streets when parochial political outfits in Mumbai expelled hundreds of Bihari migrants? Why did we not hear Parliament and BJP’s Sushma Swaraj speak as eloquently in support of Bihari taxi drivers when they were being driven out of Maharashtra?

The threats, wherever they emanated from, against the people of the Northeast are deplorable. However, the BJP appears to have jumped aggressively to their defence only because the threats seemed to have come from Muslims, an argument that becomes valid once we take their inaction and passivity during the Bihari exodus from Mumbai.

As for the developments in the Northeast, illegal migration from Bangladesh needs to be halted to the fullest extent possible through effective border management. Deportation should follow due process.

However, since a significant number of such migrants has naturalised over generations, having first settled during the colonial period, ethnic natives need to reconcile with this reality. The immigrant population certainly cannot be viewed as non-productive assets, since they provide labour and agricultural services, racially accustomed as they are to intensive farm and non-farm labour.

America’s efforts to pass the Dream Act to naturalise illegal Mexican migrants is a helpful example to show that solutions can become more difficult if race alone is the ultimate consideration in finding solutions.

To view Bengali-speaking Muslims who came in as part of a distinct historical process as “the other” is to also deny the various degrees of indigenization they will have undergone.

Identities, as Amartya Sen argues, can change when we change our “installed locations” (Identity and Violence, 2006). When English poet Lord Byron, Sen notes in these sets of essays, prepared to leave Greece, he lamented:
“Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh, Give me back my heart.”

The lament, Sen thinks, has to do with the fact that Lord Byron was no longer only the quintessential Englishman, but somewhat Grecian too, having lent his heart to Greek social life.

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