Thousands flee home to north-east after social media distorts events
Indira Gandhi told me during a Financial Times interview in February 1983 that her government would wait until the situation in Assam cooled down before taking the next step to resolve a crisis in which some 3,000 people had just been killed. There had been controversial state assembly elections in the state and the government had sent in 75,000 troops to control the violence.
The Indian prime minister said that she had “no plan as such” to resolve the crisis. The problems of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh dated back to Indian partition in 1947 “and we can’t just wish that away”. Bangladesh should, she added, take back migrants who had entered India when their country was being created (out of Pakistan) in a 1971 war. Beyond that, she said blandly, her Government would wait. (FT February 25, 1983).
Now nearly 30 years later, the problems of Assam and other north–eastern states remain, and it seems that the Indian government is still waiting until the situation cools down.
But the world is now different, as has been demonstrated in the past few weeks with what is probably been one of the biggest sudden mass migrations since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Tens of thousands of Assamese and other workers and students from north–eastern India have fled home from Bangalore and other cities in the south of the country because they feared mass attacks in retaliation for communal violence against Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in the north-east. There have been some individual attacks, but the panic has been spread by reports and pictures faking anti-Muslim atrocities in Assam and nearby states that have been carried by mobile phone text messages and other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
There are many lessons to be learned from these events, not least the way that social media can be used to stir up trouble in international as well as local conflicts. India has (controversially) banned bulk text messages for two weeks, closed 250 allegedly offending web pages, and claimed that many of the false messages originated in Pakistan (which perhaps inevitably Pakistan has rejected).
There are also lessons about how increased labour mobility means that communities need to absorb newcomers, as well as about older problems such as the treatment of both ethnic and religious minorities (in this case north-east India’s Muslims) and migrants from neighbouring countries (such as those from Bangladesh). Sadly, political parties often prefer to make capital out of minorities as happened today in Mumbai(where two people were killed in a riot ten days ago). Today part of the chauvinistic Shiv Sena political movement staged a massive anti-immigrants demonstration in the city.
Distant sisters but One India
But perhaps the biggest new lesson for India is that the seven north-eastern states – often known as the seven sisters – can no longer be treated Indira Gandhi-style as a distant delayable problem.
Ever since independence in 1947, the Indian government has regarded armed insurgencies and other uprisings and illegal immigration issues in states such as Assam, Nagaland and Manipur as events that have virtually no impact on the rest of India, located as they are far away on the other side of Bangladesh. That is rather similar to the way that the growing threat from Naxalite (Maoist) rebels in central and eastern India used to be regarded as a distant irritant that did not need Delhi’s urgent attention – something that has been corrected in the last two or there years.
This is yet another example of something I have written about before on this blog – that India can no longer survive as it has in the past by simply turning muddle and adversity into some form of (often inadequate) success, assuming that everything will eventually function adequately. I last wrote about it commenting on last month’s power blackouts and railway disasters.
My theme is that the pace of events and economic development – and now of communications – mean that issues such as the north-east can (to use an English idiom) no longer be swept under the carpet, as they have been for decades. The escalation of the various forms of social media – and economic integration – should help to bind the country together, with the north- east being seen as part of the mainstream. But they can also split India apart, with the people from the north-east feeling so isolated and vulnerable in southern Indian cities that they flee home.
So the north-east has indeed come to Delhi, in a political sense. It has also come as a social and economic phenomena with a vast influx of mostly young, energetic and friendly people who have come to the capital and the southern cities for work, or as students.
“The staff come from the north-east”, is a remark frequently heard about a restaurant. This is not said in a derogatory way, but as a slightly dismissive description of a people who, looking more Chinese than most Indians, are indeed regarded as internal migrants from a distant part of the country and not as part of the mainstream, even though they have become an important part of these cities’ economies.
Yet when Mary Kom (left), a woman boxer from Manipur, won a bronze medal in the Olympic Games, India celebrated with a fervour that could not have been greater if she had come from Mumbai or Delhi.
As the BBC reported from Assam yesterday, the migrants who have fled home fear reprisals after the very-exaggerated social media reports of clashes in the north-east between indigenous tribals and Muslim settlers. Bengali-speaking Muslims were forced out of their villages after attacks by the indigenous, predominantly Hindu Bodo tribe that have put more than 300,000 refugees in relief camps.
In a battle that is basically over land, the Bodos accuse the Muslims of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but Nilim Dutta, a political analyst, said that most of Assam’s Muslims had lived there for generations. “Over time, the Bengali migrants prospered, just like immigrant communities all over the world. This created a sense of resentment among the native Assamese communities as they both competed for resources and jobs.” There is also dissension between long-term Assamese and newer Muslim groups which is being exploited by local politicians.
Next February, it will be 30 years since Indira Gandhi said she was waiting – in an FT interview with Alain Cass, then the Asia editor, and with me (I had just been appointed south Asia correspondent and moved to Delhi a few months later).
Whatever steps have or have not been taken since then, the basic problems clearly remain. But the world is now different, as we have seen in the past few weeks, so surely the waiting game is over.