Beginning in late July, riots broke out in the northeastern state of Assam between Bodo tribals and Muslims, described in news reports as long-settled immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Political analysts haven’t yet been able to explain what sparked these particular clashes, which continue sporadically, but say tensions have long simmered between these groups over land and resources.
The death count from those clashes has now reached 78, an aide to Assam’s chief minister told India Real Time on Friday.
Since the riots, attacks on people mistaken for being ethnic Assamese have taken place in Pune. Police say those attacks were instigated by a doctored video purportedly showing Muslims being assaulted in Assam. In Bangalore, thousands of migrants from India’s seven northeastern states scrambled to catch trains back home, after a mysterious text message warning of imminent attacks on northeasterners went viral this week.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said his government will work to ensure that Indians from the northeast – often mistaken by people in other parts of India as from being from China or Southeast Asia because of their looks – feel secure living and working in any part of the country.
Here is a round-up of what Indian newspaper editorials and opinion pieces had to say about these developments.
“The real reasons behind the riots are not known yet — and may never be known,” said Seema Chishti, writing in the Indian Express on Friday.
After all, a 28-year-old report examining why a brutal massacre took place in Assam in 1983 has never been made public, she noted.
What is clear, she said, is that the clashes with Muslims in Assam have “proved extremely useful” for some Hindu nationalist parties, who in the past have done little to suppress such incidents and instead have used them as an electoral tool to capture votes.
She said the clashes were being portrayed as taking place between “local” Assamese and “outsider” Muslims even though Muslims have had a long history in the state.
“What is conveniently forgotten in the heat of the moment are crucial historical aspects,” she wrote. “Over a century ago, during British rule, Bengalis, including Muslims, settled down in Assam.”
A editorial in the Deccan Chronicle on Friday slammed the country’s administration for its inability to resolve the violence in Assam, or for that matter, to even arrive at an understanding of what’s happening.
“One side alleges that Bangladeshi immigrants, who are Muslims, taking over Bodo lands is the root cause. The other side claims that the people are Bengali Muslims from India,” said the piece.
It continued, “As a country we ought to be able to tell with some certainty whether those people are our citizens or not. If they are our citizens, they deserve the state’s protection. If they are illegal migrants they should be deported. Unfortunately, we are unable to answer the question convincingly.”
In a Hindustan Times column on Thursday, Varghese K. George noted that strengthening security forces along the India-Bangladesh border would do little to resolve ongoing illegal immigration, which some analysts say is one of the triggers for the violence in Assam.
“The issue of unauthorized movement of people from Bangladesh to India must be addressed from a broader development perspective for lasting solutions,” he said. “Otherwise the debate on it will degenerate into xenophobic rhetoric.”
One long-term solution could be for Indian authorities to shift focus from “ruthless management” of the border to aiding Bangladesh in its development, he said, arguing that acute poverty and lawlessness is what compels Bangladeshi citizens to flee from their native land.
An editorial entitled “Act Now” in the Deccan Herald on Thursday said rumors of impending attacks on northeasterners in Bangalore were so successful in getting many of them to rush home because of the “long-standing discrimination” northeastern Indians face when they leave their own states.
“In Bangalore, the rumors were allegedly spread through SMSes and social network Web sites like Facebook and Twitter,” said the piece. “Considering that there was no immediate provocation or any known incident to trigger such a mass exodus, it can only be the result of a deep-seated fear psychosis that has not been properly addressed.”
The editorial continued, “While the country basked in celebrations of the 66th Independence Day, here was a danger signal, however minute, that we have all taken the slogans of ‘unity and integrity’ and ‘unity in diversity’ completely for granted.”
In a piece in the Hindustan Times on Saturday, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, editor of its English-language news operations, also expressed worry about the country’s frayed social fabric.
“A decline in riots does not necessarily correspond with a decline in prejudice,” wrote Ms. Dutt. “Add to that the divisions drawn by and ideological polarization in our political discourse – and we find ourselves living with a perennial fire-warning against inflammable outbursts of hate campaigns.”
“There is no doubt that there are primarily two things that make the Indian state distinctive – our democracy and diversity,” she said. “The fact that rumors, threats, falsified images on Facebook and Twitter, and in some cases attacks, were able to rupture the sense of social order has to make one wonder how deep the fault-lines were to begin with.”
And in the Indian Express on Saturday, the paper’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta said it was a shame that so many Indians continue to be both ignorant and condescending about the northeast. It’s a part of India where there’s an egalitarianism and respect for labor that’s missing in many parts of Indian – and that should be emulated, he said.
He described being in the northeastern state of Manipur, where the now-beloved Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom is from, and watching ministers sit down with drivers and clerks to eat – something unthinkable in Delhi, for example. He also saw a driver thrash the minister he worked for at table-tennis while taunting him for becoming slow and lazy to the enjoyment of all present.
“Show me a driver in the mainland who will thrash his minister at any game,” wrote Mr. Gupta. “Or, a minister who will take it in his stride.”
Mr. Gupta was referring to the region of India outside the northeast as “mainland,” a common usage, although the northeast is not cut off from the rest of India by a body of water.