India's Internet Turns Local Clashes Into Ethnic Faceoff

One of the more tragic possibilities enabled by the information age is that incidents of discord or violence in one part of the world often have ripple effects at great removes of space, and sometimes time, and that local causes and histories are disastrously subsumed into global categories and structures. Something of this sort has been observed in India over the last six weeks.

In July, tensions that had long simmered in Assam, a state in northeast India, between members of the Bodo tribe and Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants, came to a boil in a surge of violence, claiming many lives and displacing thousands. It was lamentable that this crisis did not receive as much attention in the national media as it should have, but the fallout of the violence across the country was just as disturbing.

Bit by bit, a regional dispute with a long and complex history involving local political parties, illegal immigration and movement patterns of settlement over decades, was turned, on Internet forums and through text messages, into a Hindu-Muslim faceoff, with all the absence of specificity and projection of stereotypes common to this kind of debate.

Earlier this month, a rally was held in Mumbai, more than 1,500 miles west of the Assam violence, to protest the attacks on Muslims in Assam. Fuelled by doctored videos of violence against Muslims, the protest turned bloody, leaving two people dead and over 100 injured.

A few days later, rumors fanned out in Bangalore, again more than 1,500 miles south of Assam, that the city's sizeable class of migrants from northeast India might be under attack by Muslims. A vicious campaign of threats over text message led thousands of northeastern migrants to flee the city, in a disturbing echo of the many thousands displaced in Assam. On Wednesday, the Indian Express reported that preliminary investigations revealed that one miscreant in Bangalore, a cellphone repairman, had forwarded inflammatory images and messages to about 20,000 people.

At the heart of this violence was the continuing chasm of understanding that lies between what is called "mainland India" and the seven states of its northeast, which have historically received stepmotherly treatment from New Delhi and found their citizens handled like aliens when they travel to other parts of their own country. As Sanjoy Hazarika wrote in the Hindustan Times on Aug. 19, this ignorance led to thousands of people from the northeast becoming scapegoats:

The madness that has gripped parts of India, leading to the exodus of tens of thousands of people from the North-east -- not just from Assam but from across the region -- is not only an expression of fear and doubt, but also a stark reflection of the absolute and resolute ignorance that holds much of this country, including its educated middle-class, in its thrall about the region.

Many of those who left Bangalore and other cities and some of those targeted in those cities were not from Assam, where recent riots have seen 70 deaths and nearly half a million displaced, but from other parts of the region. But the riots in Assam have obviously had unforeseen repercussions.

To the handful of thugs who abused those targeted and that vicious SMS [text message] that drove many away, their actual place of origin was unimportant: they were all branded the same. But alas in that complex and volatile area, there is little in common between an Ahom and a Mizo, a Meitei or a Mishing, a Bodo or a Sherdupken, an Assamese Hindu and a Bengali-speaking Muslim. It is like saying that a Maharashtrian and a Tamil are the same or a Telugu speaker and an Oriya are from the same area.

Indeed, most Indians cannot break down the many internal histories and differences of this region beyond a generic "northeast" -- a marker useful as a starting-point perhaps, but not as an end. This ignorance opens out into a pervasive and unselfconscious racism. As the playwright and theatre director Swar Thounaojam, a native of Manipur in the northeast who now lives in Bangalore in the south, wrote a few months ago in the Economic & Political Weekly:

The north-east -- rarely north-east Indians but often north-east persons or people -- is now a popular handle used to describe the 39 million people, according to the 2001 Census, who belong to over 200 ethnic minority groups and originate, live or migrate from the eight states comprising the north-eastern part of India that borders China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Mainland India is the handle used by the north-east to refer to the dominant political, social and cultural landscape of India. ...

The racial slur chinki is persistently used by mainland India to categorise the north-east (and any person with an east Asian physical structure). The majority of users defend the usage as handy in identifying who is what in this country. This usage is an ideological process to define an unclassified populace who have become the nation’s citizens but do not share, in the popular imagination of the country, its biology, historicity and cultural values.

Through modern technology, such racial stereotypes can travel a long way. On the website, Nishant Shah, a well-known Indian writer on the intersection of technology and society and a native of Bangalore, painted a dystopian picture of a networked world gone wrong:

I woke up one morning to find that I was living in a city of crisis. Bangalore, where the largest public preoccupations to date have been about bad roads, stray dogs, and occasionally, the lack of night-life, the city was suddenly a space that people wanted to flee and occupy simultaneously.

Through technology mediated gossip mill that produced rumours faster than the speed of a digital click, imagination of terror, of danger and of material harm found currency and we found thousands of people suddenly leaving the city to go back to their imagined homelands.

The media spectacle of this exodus around questions of religion, ethnicity and regionalism only emphasised the fact that there is a new wave of connectedness that we live in -- the social web, or what have you -- that can no longer be controlled, contained or corrected by official authorities and their voices.

But amid all the turmoil, what is perhaps the most disturbing is just how vulnerable people from the northeast feel within their own nation. As an Aug. 18 editorial in the Indian Express correctly observed:

Citizens from the Northeast have clearly felt less than protected in places they are now fleeing. That they are leaving in such large numbers on the flimsy basis of a rumour, despite the fact that hardly any actual incidents of violence have been established, indicates how defenceless they felt. ...

It is telling that one of the first reactions in Bangalore was to organise more special Northeast-bound trains, rather than address the confusion and panic among people. Even assuming that the decision was made with the best intention, it served to underscore an unfortunate signal -- that the state could not be trusted to ensure normality in times of crisis, and that those of Northeastern origin were safest back in the Northeast. The point is, even if these states adeptly manage to contain violence and stop the people from returning now, this episode has manifested their larger inability to make citizens feel securely at home.

Meanwhile, back in Assam, thousands of people displaced by the original commotion -- the clashes that allowed groups with different ideological convictions to invent or inflame further violence, sometimes with the creative narrative use of modern technology -- are just beginning to return home from the relief camps in which they have for weeks been forced to seek refuge.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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