Saturday, August 18, 2012


One thing at a time, as I try to make sense of this riot-like situation, the possible ethnic violence, with religious overtones, which has hit the otherwise peaceful city of Pune, with hoards of young men and women from all the North Eastern states of the country, including Assam, leaving Pune since August 16,2012. Is leaving the right course of action? I don’t know. Are these people scared? Yes. Very much. Am I, an Assamese in Pune, scared? To a certain extent, yes, I am. But, I am not showing it. I can intellectualise my fears; I can negotiate it, not everyone can.

The news channels are on the overdrive how people from North East are fleeing from Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad. Political parties are playing the blame game. Random organisations have come up to offer support. But, no one seems to be asking the pertinent question, why. Why these people are so scared against a possible attack from a group of Muslims? So much so that assurance from police and political leaders cannot give them comfort.

This is a million dollar question, and the answer lies in identity politics. Speaking for myself, Pune is a cosmopolitan city, open to anything, and there is assimilation. Beneath this, however, there is a deep-rooted fear for the "other", fear for people who are not like us.

People from the North East, for that matter, people from Sikkim or Ladakh or Nepal, with Mongoloid facial features, with slanted eyes, are always seen with suspicion in mainstream India. This is not racism as it is ignorance. Mainstream India believes that every Indian should look like them. If not, they are perhaps not Indian. That is a bias that people from North East face on a daily basis in mainstream India. Ask me, I know.

I’ve been in Pune for the last 14 years. I know the language, the culture. Yet, I remain a perennial outsider. I am introduced as someone from Assam, negating all my other credentials. For someone from mainstream, my identity becomes Assamese, the exotic, the other.

People from the North East know this and have negotiated it in their own ways; a taunt or a cat-call behind our back we can handle, but we will be afraid if someone is braying for our blood.

And, we don’t trust them who have promised to support us, as well. For, they are equally biased and ignorant. They do not know where we come from. They do not appreciate diversity.

It all started without a warning. The skirmishes between the Bodo community and Bangla-speaking alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh in Kokrajhar district in the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam had been on since July. Kokrajhar had always been a volatile area since the days of Bodoland movement when armed revolutionaries would demand a politically recognised area for the people of the Bodo community. After decades of violence, against Assamese people and against the agents of the state, the central government, the demands were met, at least in parts and there was some uneasy peace. The politics was still unpredictable.

The question here is not religious clash. It’s more of a search for nationalistic identity, and a war for territorial rights. After all, Bodos are the original inhabitants of the land, before history and selfish politics handed over the land, the undivided Assam, from one power to another — the Ahoms, the Burmese Army, the British, the mainstream Assamese culture and government and the Indian Nation itself. The search for a Bodo national identity was a series of betrayal till a generation decided to take the matter on their hands, hands that carried weapons, and sought to rewrite history. First, it was against the Assamese people, and then against everyone else. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Assamese people in the heart of Bodo populated areas in Assam, places like Tamulpur and Udalgudi, were forced to move out. This is especially truth in case of the Assamese trader community, who had been “exploiting” the illiterate, and innocent Bodo people for ages.

Two decades later, the Bodo people are not ready to give up their hard-earned legitimacy.

The story of Bangladeshi migrants in Assam is another tale of human suffering. The migration of the Bangla-speaking population from erstwhile East Bengal to the fertile land of Assam started with the arrival of the British, who was given the land of undivided Assam as spoils of war in the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1824. The migration became acute in 1971, during the Bangladesh War of Independence, where the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi offered the migrant population, most of them Hindus, places to settle down in India. No one in Assam complained as such, since it did not affect anyone. Those days Assam had acres and acres of uninhabited land.

Bangladesh was now an independent country. But, it did not stop the migration. It only increased, with the rising population in their home country, and lack of land or livelihood. Every year a typhoon or cyclone would ravages villages after villages in Bangladesh and a few months later, they would arrive in Assam, in hoards. At least, here, they had hopes for some food, some shelter.

But, for how long? As the population increased, it threatened to askew the balance. Gradually, the population of the migrants started to increase more than the local, indigenous population. It was a threat, and the local population reacted to it with violence. Beginning in late 1970s, it culminated into the student-led Assam Movement (of which the high-point was the massacre in Nellie), which reached its fruitless end in 1985, with the signing of the Assam Accord.

The issue was dealing with the illegal migrants. Politics, power-breaking and a very divisive law titled Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT) made sure that the issue remained where it was. The real problem was ignored and swept under the carpet where it shimmered all these years, to be ignited by a political will or mob emotion.

The attack on the people from the Northeast in cities like Pune and Bangalore, as a retaliation against the atrocities meted out to the Muslim brethren in Assam (or Myanmar) is ignorance at its worse. It shows how the people outside the region do not know about the people from North East and are not even willing to learn. Everyone with a tribal feature is not from Assam, or anti-Muslim.

The irony is, the victims of these attacks are not even remotely concerned about what’s happening in Assam, or in Myanmar. Several of the students targeted in Pune were from Manipur, a state which has its own shares of years of strife. The populace is already deeply dissatisfied how the Indian State has dealt with the problems in the state (Irom Sharmila continues her hunger strike!). Now, these incidents only increase the discontent.

People from other North Eastern states, especially, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, always look at the mainstream Assamese people with suspicion. For, they believe that the Assamese people either exploited them or betrayed them. There is a deep-rooted history for this. (There was a time when Nagamese was a valid lingua franca between the people of Assam and Nagaland; but the new generation of Naga youth prefer English to Nagamese, and if possible, they don’t want to deal with the Assamese people.). And now, you single them out for something that the Assamese people did.

The Times of India, Pune Edition, August 17, 2012:
More than 2,000 panic-stricken people from the Northeast living in Pune boarded the Azad Hind Express on Thursday to leave the city for their respective states. The train runs daily from Pune to Howrah in West Bengal.
A milieu of workers and students from northeastern states like Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland thronged the Pune railway station in the evening to catch the train, in a coordinated move to go back home together in large numbers. They said they were leaving the city as they felt insecure after the recent attacks here and also because their parents and family members were urging them to return.
Another reason for their anxiety was the rumour of an SMS doing the rounds which told them to leave Pune if they wanted to be safe. However, senior inspector Prasad Hasabnis of the Kondhwa police station said the cops had not received a single complaint about any such SMS.
Sameer Sinha, a resident of Silchar in Assam who works at a mall in Pune, said, “In the wake of the ongoing violence in Assam as well as in other cities like Pune and Bangalore, it is better for us to return home as our parents are worried. Though we are getting police protection here, our parents have been calling us back.”
Sinha said he along with his friends had been planning to leave since the last five or six days, after the attacks on NE students begain in Poona College. “All of us have been coordinating with one another since the past few days, after which we fixed Thursday as the day to leave,” he said.
Sinha said he along with his friends had been planning to leave since the last five or six days, after the attacks on NE students begain in Poona College. “All of us have been coordinating with one another since the past few days, after which we fixed Thursday as the day to leave,” he said.
Avinash Sinha (23), who was headed for Guwahati along with 40 of his friends, said, “Staying here is like inviting trouble. Our parents are calling us back. I heard that four to five NE students were thrashed at their Gokhalenagar residence. I live close by and the incident scared me.”
Avinash is pursuing his MBA from a city-based college. “My studies will definitely suffer. But I have no choice, my safety comes first. I am not shifting permanently though, and have left some of my belongings here. I will return once the situation calms down,” he said.
Carolyn Gonmei, a first-year arts student at the city-based Abeda Inamdar College, was leaving Pune with nine of her friends, who are from either Poona College or Abeda Inamdar College. “We are scared to stay here. Our parents are worried and have asked us to return. We will board the train though our tickets have not been confirmed yet,” she said.
Kenny Kamei, a third-year BCom student of Abeda Inamdar College, had come to see off nine of his friends at the station. “I am not going today but will leave next week,” he said.
Bhumidhar Das, an employee with a city-based automobile company, said, “The recent attacks here have forced us to leave. We do not want to stay here lest we get into some kind of trouble. I have quit my job and am moving with my entire luggage. In fact, I did not even wait for my employer to pay my salary for the month. We had all decided to leave together, which is safer. I will return only if the situation improves.”
Krishna Kanpegur, a resident of Lakhimpur, Assam, has also quit his job in another automobile company here to go back home. “We are scared. Newspaper reports of the attacks in Pune have scared our family members back home too. They are asking us to return,” he said.
Dharmendra Pegu of Assam said, “Though Assam is also witnessing communal violence, we will feel safer with our families there. We do not feel secure in Pune, especially when we are out on the roads. The Assam government will provide us with security.”
Another student from Assam said, “More than 2,000 people from the NE states are at the station today. We have been planning to leave together ever since the attacks began in Pune. We communicated with each other through phone calls and by word of mouth and decided to leave today.”
Myda, who would not reveal her last name, was leaving the city along with her husband. Incidentally, she is from the violence-affected district of Sonitpur in Assam. “The situation in Pune is delicate. The turmoil here as well as in other cities have compelled us to leave. We will be safer back home. I heard that some of my friends had received an SMS asking them to leave if we wanted to be safe. We will return once the situation calms down,” she said.
Rock Lungleng, convenor of the northeastern students’ Interim Forum, said, “There is a rumour of an SMS being circulated among NE students asking them to leave. However, we have neither received any such SMS on our cellphones nor do we know the source of it.”
Ranjeet Natu, vice-president of the city unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), along with several others members of the organization, were at the railway station trying to convince the NE students and workers to stay. “We tried our best, but in vain. They did not want to listen to us. Some of them spoke of threat SMSs, asking them to leave if they wanted to be safe,” he said.
Shiv Singh of Jan Kalyan Samiti (Purvanchal), who was present at the station, said, “We are arranging for food and lodging for these passengers in Kolkata for the next few days. After their halt in Kolkata, another train will take them to Guwahati. Many NE students will also be boarding the Pune-Patna Express at 10 pm tonight. From Patna, they will board another train coming from New Delhi, and head for Guwahati,” he said.

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