For the beleaguered UPA government, this is yet another opportunity to show that India is not a country to be messed with. Not from external forces, of course. But neither from goons and mischief makers within.

As though the clouds of economic despair descending on the country — the double whammy of investor confidence shattered by a slowing economy and multiple scams unfolding — were not enough, we have a virtual volcano erupting in the North-East.

The Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam and the incendiary messages unleashed through social networking sites and mindless, hate-filled texting thereafter, have resulted in a virtual exodus of North-Easterners from the rest of the country back to their homes.

These days it is virtually impossible in southern cities such as Bangalore and Chennai to find an adequate number of skilled, trained, well-groomed and articulate young people to man the services in hotels and restaurants, in the fast growing beauty and spa services segment, and jobs that require basic English skills.

With trainloads of people from the North-Eastern States fleeing home on the back of rumours and hate messages that after 2 p.m. on Eid day Muslims will attack them to avenge the targeting of Muslims in Assam, the economic consequences of the holes they leave behind in various establishments is cause for concern.

A bigger assault

But the much bigger assault is on the social and cultural fabric of India. It is now known for sure that the Internet has been used by some Pakistani religious extremists to morph images of the death of Muslims, some of them from other pogroms and even natural causes such as floods, to stir up communal passion. Some misguided Muslims in India have got on to the bandwagon and sent hate texts to warn of revenge for what happened in Assam. One such youth — 20-year-old Hassain — has been arrested in Coimbatore for forwarding a hate-filled text to 200 people.

Now, of course, a restriction has been clamped on text messages, which have been confined to five a day. Coming as it did around the Eid season, I wasn’t even able to thank my friends for their Eid greetings! Parents of perennially texting kids want this restriction to be permanent.

NO faith in governments

Returning to the grim situation the country is facing, how the government handles this crisis in the next few days will be crucial. In the face of immediate physical danger, the fiercest of animals are known to turn around and flee. And the North-Easterners are generally gentle and non-violent people.

One can understand their hitting the panic button and fleeing from the perceived danger zone without caring to verify the facts. All the State governments have been assuring them of their safety and urging them that what is circulating is only a rumour and they should not believe it, and so on. But let’s face it. The average Indian’s faith in the government’s ability to save him/her when faced with murderous mobs is zilch. This was proven during the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, and a thousand other occasions. So one can’t blame these polite, courteous and gentle people of the North-East for packing up their belongings and fleeing from different parts of India to their homes.

Another wake-up call

But once things calm down, our government will have to treat the ongoing madness as yet another wake-up call. It will have to use the full force of its communication arsenal — oh, yes, this is no less than a warlike situation — to warn mischief-makers that their shenanigans and hate slogans will not be tolerated. The matter is, of course, being taken up by our neighbour but how effective that will be for the future is anybody’s guess.

What is crucial is that we have to get our act together and give different sections and sects of people the confidence that the official machinery will not permit anyone… just about anyone, however high and mighty or powerful they might be… to attack, terrorise or kill at their will and pleasure. For India is a sovereign country; this is not a banana republic where sword or trishul-wielding goons can impose their madness or frenzy on people of a different faith, region or culture. Cries of Allaho Akbar or Jai Sriram or whatever are absolutely fine, but restrict them to your places of worship or homes. The trouble comes when they are brought out in full gusto in the public domain and used as slogans to show your masculinity or strength.

The message has to go out loud and clear that this is unacceptable. Period.

Disaster management

It is not only the sight of trains filled with North-Easterners fleeing their work spots that is heartrending. There is an estimated 3 lakh refugees — some accounts put it at 5 lakh — in the refugee camps in riot-torn Assam. A few lakh people have fled their villages and poured into refugee camps in three districts of Assam.

For the listless and beleaguered UPA government, on attack from all directions, this is yet another opportunity to show that India is not a country to be messed with. Not from external forces, of course. But neither from goons and mischief makers within.

How speedily and effectively these twin situations are handled by the Central and State governments remains to be seen. The next couple of days are going to be absolutely crucial. The situation at the moment is full of disastrous possibilities.

None less than Pakistani hardline organisers are reportedly involved in triggering the hate campaign/messages against people from the North-East. It is not as though Pakistan itself is not struggling with its home-grown terrorism.

On Sunday night, cellular services were suspended for four hours in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Quetta as the Interior Ministry suspected mobile phones would be used to trigger bomb attacks.

While that is becoming a matter of routine in Pakistan, we have to act swiftly against the growing regional and religious divide in our country. And the growing alienation of our own people, sections of whom are losing faith in the idea of India.

The sense of alienation in the North-East is no secret. Its geographic location and the region being connected to India by only a chicken’s neck, with Bangladesh refusing right of passage on so many accounts, doesn’t help either. And then we’ve had these people, particularly the Assamese, being targeted and thrown out of Maharashtra a couple of years go on the ludicrous sons-of-the-soil theory. And now a looming threat, however unreal it might be, of Muslims targeting them.

But the silver lining in the cloud is that till now both the Government and the people have acted sensibly. As agricultural scientist and Rajya Sabha MP M. S. Swaminathan has suggested, the Indian Railway must now swing into action.

Once tempers cool down and the fear psychosis abates, special trains should be run, free of cost, to allow people from the North-East, who have fled their temporary homes, to return.

This is the minimum that the state can do for these gentle people.

rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on August 20, 2012)
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