Seeing the current times when thousands of northeastern people are fleeing their bases from various parts of India back to their homes, one can not but help saying that this is a huge blot on India's big pride of being a democratic country. Not many have perhaps seen such mass exodus since the refugee movements during Partition or during the days when East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh) was subjected to severe atrocities from those ruling in West Pakistan.
What is happening today is just the normal consequences of too many complex issues woven together. The problem is that the leaders, irrespective of their political clout and ideology, have no understanding of the actual problems. Whether be it the ruling party or the opposition, north-east is a distant entity from them and perhaps all the more a non-Indian one. It is by no means a Hindu-Muslim problem. This very thinking also shows how much colonised is our thought-process that we are just able to view any community-related issues in terms of religion.
Oversimplifying the Assam problem on the lines of 'illegal Muslim immigrants are creating all problems' will never take us anywhere. How do we define the concept of northeast as a whole? Can we call it a predominantly Hindu region? No. Can we call it a caste-based identity? No. Can we elevate its status as a part of new India which has seen the good effects of a liberalised economy? No. In fact, we still struggle to identify so many geographically-cramped northeastern states by their distinct names on the map. All of them, for us, are just Assam. This thought itself is quite disturbing.
Paradox for Indian democracy
This is quite a paradox for the world's largest democracy. Are we increasingly heading towards an exclusivist identity while the natural norm for a democracy is to strengthen an inclusivist model? While we have chosen to flaunt a secular leadership at the helm (a Brahmin, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh and a Dalit occupying the topmost political positions in the country), the picture is absolutely disturbing on the ground where even the slightest of provocation can result in a disaster.
What the Congress has done in exploiting immigration to make electoral gains and all, has definitely harmed the demography of Assam and created problems of tussle. But this is not the entire picture. I have two questions on this particular point.
First, Assam can not just be defined in terms of religious homogeneity. There are Bengali Hindus, Muslim Assamese and not to forget, the tribals and also Christians. In such a glaring scenario of heterogeneity, how can one just oversimplify the problem? The immigrants who are coming from Bangladesh are doing so because of economic hardships and they can not be treated as per religion. If minority Hindus from Bangladesh are also fleeing and entering India, then what's the far-right elements' say on that?
Second, Bangladeshi immigrants have also entered West Bengal in thousands. That state has a much longer and porous boundary with Bangladesh. But we did not see such localised clashes in West Bengal like it happened in Assam. The CPI(M), which ruled West Bengal for 34 years, did not stop the exodus because it, too, had aimed political gains. Then why wasn't the problem a life-threatening one in Bengal?
The origin of these problems has their roots in history. The idea of India was consolidated by the colonial masters and then by a nationalism, which was also a reaction to the prolonged colonialism. But neither the colonisers nor India's nationalism cared to include the 'distant' northeast in the Indian scheme of things.
The Britishers thought it was too backward while the Indian nationalism did not look beyond the mainland and this proved fatal in terms of linkings the 'two Indias' (mainland and northeast) by a common socio-cultural and political bond. The unevenness went on unbridged and later, creation of Bangladesh in the demographically-complex region and the beginning of the mass-exodus, added more to the woes.
There is doubt that no government in independent India has ever focussed to solve this problem and undertake the necessary steps. The Congress is criticised the more for it was in power for a larger part of the history but even the BJP, which has a limited scope of political manoeuvrability, did little to address the issue.
Even southern India had a tough time to gain an identity in the nation's power circles where, till recently, was known to be the land of the Madrasis. If mainland India has faced such a problem, then no surprise that a historically disadvantageous northeast will be facing more serious issues.
Nature of problem now changing for the worst
Till Assam, it was not a communal issue. A state with a goodwill to resolve the problem, could create a blueprint for the betterment of the northeastern people, mainly in terms of economic development of the native people. Even the issue of integrity with other smaller backward countries in the region could be taken up for there is no denying that India will continue to pay the price for its betterment and there must be a consistent policy decision to check unfavourable consequences. Just calling to throw the immigrants back is a hollow effort.
Post-Assam, the problem has started to acquire a communal colour. This is a dangerous trend. Parallels are being drawn between atrocities against Muslims in other countries like Myanmar or the recent exodus of Hindus from Pakistan. The issues of Tamils in Sri Lanka and Bhutanese refugees have also been pressing ones.
The democratic fabric of India, a state-nation more than a nation-state, is facing perhaps one of its biggest challenges after independence. If an evil intention is trying to 'utilise' the opportunity to widen the gaps among Indians by playing one minority against another by technology, it is high time that we negate it. India, can not, afford to forget what consequences the former USSR and Yugoslavia had faced.