Sometimes, the fragile peace and dynamic of a democratic federalism is challenged by the most unexpected of occurrences. The panic-ridden mass exodus of people belonging to the north-eastern region of India from Pune and Mumbai and now the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu fuelled by a whirlpool of rumors has threatened the very ‘diversity with unity’ that India is so proud of. At the same time, this has also posed a tremendous challenge to the delicate federal set-up of the country, bringing to the fore the huge test that holding together an ethnically, socially and politically diverse country like India is.
It all began as a land conflict in the northeastern state of Assam between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Muslims that led to the death of many and displacement of tens of thousands of people in the state. How some side-effects of this clash, restricted to the state and its dynamics, spread to other parts of the country like the proverbial wildfire has come as a huge jolt to the establishment as a whole. Rumors—spread through text messages, websites and the social media—about possible attacks on north-eastern migrants created panic among the community, forcing them to rush back home in huge numbers last week.
These are mostly people who migrated to bigger cities in search of better employment and education opportunities that the post-liberalization era in India has ushered in. The many attractive and lucrative opportunities in Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mysore and so on, are in sharp contrast to the backwardness and lack of prospects that have come to characterize northeast India, which has been ignored and relegated to the periphery by the so-called ‘mainstream’.
However, this anxiety-ridden flight of those from the seven states of northeast India has highlighted some crucial aspects of India’s tenuous fabric.
To begin with, it has highlighted the difficulty of the task of handling and keeping intact the immense ethnic diversity and federal structure of the country; the tightrope walk that has come to define India’s domestic policy. The central establishment has to manage not just the political implications of such a varied culture and of federalism, but also the social aspects of it. For instance, in this situation, it has to step up and assure those from the north-east that they are safe and secure in any part of the country, and at the same time ensure this is true. While law and order is a state subject, the centre has to intervene in a crisis of such proportion and ascertain that the hysteria is brought under control. This, while not overstepping its brief and transgressing on the boundaries of state governments, fuelling a new political quarrel.
It is also a grim reminder of how the policy of trying to restrict a regional ethnic conflict within a state and aiming to resolve it regionally may now be outdated in this connected day and age when no single state can claim not to have a significant proportion of migrants. More importantly, the current crisis has demonstrated how these previously stand-alone cases of discrimination and biased reactions can escalate into a nationwide ethnic conflict, giving a new dimension to communal tensions in the country. This is a challenge for not just the ruling establishment but the entire political class—how to devise a pan-India strategy that suits the altered context of a more mixed and mobile India.
Two, this incident has also brought to the fore the insecurities of those from the north-east. While for years migrants from this region have moved to other states to work and study, their integration into the so-called ‘mainstream’ is far from complete. The panic they felt because of fallout of what happened in geographically distant Assam is a reflection of the sense of alienation they continue to feel. It is no secret that these people are often targets of discrimination and prejudice because of their ‘different’ looks. Because even most of those from developed urban pockets are still not progressive enough to look beyond this difference and give up their false sense of entitlement to the country.
Three, what this crisis also underscores is the challenge faced by various federal units and state governments in dealing with a situation as delicate and equations as frail as these. The governments of all the migrant recipient states have to do all they can to make migrants feel secure and at home, which to their credit, the state governments have done in this situation. It is important that regional one-upmanship and apathy towards those who don’t form your vote-bank doesn’t get the better of sensible politics and the harmonious spirit of state establishments.
The panicky exodus of migrants belonging to northeast India from urban centers has highlighted the fragility of the country’s socio-ethnic fabric, and the huge political challenge ahead.
At the same time, it is equally imperative for the politicians and governments of the north-eastern states in this case to remain calm and not use this as a political opportunity to flex ethnic muscles by blaming other state governments or the centre, and fuelling regionalism to garner votes at home.
However, this situation of anxiety has also brought to light another aspect of federalism. Those from the north-east, who have been feeling isolated in states where they work or study, have found comfort at the thought of rushing back to their home regions, with faith in their respective state governments. Thus, a federal structure in some ways assures those who may be in minority in the overall dynamic of the country, of a sense of ownership, entitlement and belonging in their respective state polities.
Overall, so far, the political class of India has shown great integrity and maturity in dealing with the situation. The opposition has not blamed the government for this chaos, state governments have practiced restraint and pragmatism and the entire political leadership has in unison appealed for calm, assuring and comforting the north-eastern migrants. To be sure, however, this crisis is not a mere unfortunate co-incidence but is perhaps being deliberately fuelled and exploited by radical elements in the country—both Muslim and Hindu, who have always had vested agendas.
On Saturday, the Indian home secretary issued a statement mentioning how the hate messages and offensive images put on the internet that led to such panic were uploaded in Pakistan. While that may be true, it is crucial to remember that whoever may be to blame, this crisis is India’s alone; and India alone as a whole as to find a way out. There is no point in putting the onus on a ‘foreign hand’. Those from the north-east must be made to feel safe and secure at home, which is the whole of India, and not just their hometowns.