The recent exodus of tens of thousands of persons of the North-East, from Bangalore and other southern cities, has been treated as a problem created by malicious rumours sponsored by a foreign hand.

The response has thus been concentrated on the messenger, with a great deal of debate on controlling the Internet and SMS. Very little attention has been paid to the more fundamental question of just why did these rumours find such fertile soil in which they could grow so rapidly?

Without an answer to this question, we risk shooting the messenger at great cost to democratic freedoms while the exodus-generating wounds continue to fester.

When we step back from the immediate crisis and try to understand the longer-term trends underlying the panic that drove persons from the North-East back to their States, even though social tensions were at a peak in Assam, it is difficult to miss the role of migration in the post-liberalisation economic strategy.

Prior to the reforms of 1991, addressing regional disparities had a prominent place in economic policy. Industries were regularly given incentives to move to backward areas. After the reforms, these incentives disappeared from the policy discourse. Instead, States competed with each other to attract investment by offering incentives to set up industries in their most advanced sites.

As a result the more developed parts of the country developed further, even as the less developed regions remained largely where they were.

Labour from the less developed regions then had necessarily to move to the more developed regions in search of work. This migration was not confined merely to the people from the poorer regions of the State moving to relatively nearby urban centres, but to migration across much larger distances such as from the North-East of the country to southern cities.

Identity politics

It is possible to provide a positive spin to this large-scale migration across the country. The fact that Indians can gain employment in any part of the country does strengthen the idea of India. It also improves the prospects of our large cities becoming multi-cultural centres. And as migrant workers send a part of their wages back home, it helps a transfer of resources from the more prosperous parts of the country to the slower growing regions.

This idyllic picture is, however, blurred by at least two other features of the last two decades and more. First, the terms of employment in the post-liberalisation era have been marked by greater uncertainties. Rather than the long-term career options that were the ideal in the years before 1991, the focus is now on short-term employment.

Moving up the career ladder is to be done by crossing over to more lucrative jobs. The high attrition rates do not allow much space for stable workplace institutions, including trade unions. The migrant workers then live in an atmosphere of temporariness with few local institutions they can turn to in times of acute distress.

Second, and arguably more important, the political ethos that has emerged over the last three decades is quite inconsistent with large-scale migration across the country.

Identity politics has become the lingua-franca of the political space. Ideological battles are often based on implying one identity to be greater than another. Political battles are then largely, if not entirely, a matter pitting religious identities versus caste identities versus class identities versus regional and language identities. And as politics has become more competitive, the reliance on identity politics has only increased.

easy targets

Migrant workers are the easy target of this identity crossfire. The numbers are clearly stacked against them. Even when migrant workers are a majority of a city’s workforce, each regional group can be targeted separately. The riots in Assam were sought to be countered by mobilisation of other minorities in Mumbai.

This was, in turn, countered by Raj Thackeray mobilising the majority in a counter-rally and using that occasion to target other regional minorities from Bihar in Mumbai. It is then no surprise that at the first signs of social tensions migrant workers have no option but to pack up and leave.

Ironically enough, the conflict between the political and the economic over the last three decades has only served to further strengthen identity politics. As workers move across the country into environments where local institutions, at best, ignore them, they have few options other than creating institutions based on their own regional identities. This provides an ideal situation for politicians who thrive on identity politics to practise their craft. If workers from State A are threatened in State B, politicians in State A can threaten to retaliate against workers from State B.

With identity politics feeding on the uncertainties of migrant workers it would be futile to expect the mismatch between a unified national economy and local political expediencies to be corrected by steps in the political space. It may be much more useful to bring the goal of reducing regional economic disparities back to the centre stage of policy making.

Anyone who saw the fear in the eyes of young men from the North-East pushing themselves into packed, moving special trains on a three-and-a-half-day journey from Bangalore towards a trouble-torn Assam, even though there wasn’t a single incident of violence in the southern city, will surely recognise that we need a much more serious response than controlling the Internet.

(The author is Professor, School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.)