Voices Friday, June 06, 2014 - 05:30
By Shruti Pandalai The cycle of violence in Assam has erupted again. Ethnic clashes between Bodos (Assam’s biggest Tribal group) and Muslims in lower Assam has resurfaced leaving a trail of bloodshed and thousands homeless. The current spate of violence is horrifyingly similar to the targeted killings of Bengali Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh in 2012 that left hundreds dead and lakhs of people displaced. In a polarized election, this carnage has a specific political context. But like many issues from the North east, despite the news making the headlines, the gravity of the situation is lost en masse in the public consciousness. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which has been demanding a separate homeland for decades, is alleged to be behind the ethnic strife. Violence hit Kokrajhar and its neighbouring districts within the Bodo Territorial Administration Districts (BTAD), are home to both the Bodo tribe and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Fears and insecurities about land encroachment and the growing population of Muslims in the region have triggered Bodo demands for a new state. A bitter insurgency has festered since the 90s’ and the many peace accords signed with different representative groups have failed to end the discord. Add vote bank politics to this equation and the consequences are telling. Among the 15 lakh voters in Kokrajhar, about six lakh are Bodo, and four lakh are Muslim. Reporters from the area say that since there were four Bodo candidates in the fray this election, the support from Muslims, who form the second-largest vote block after the Bodos became key. The Congress and the BJP have both flogged the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants to lock in their vote banks. An allegation by a senior leader of Bodo People’s Front (BPF), which is a partner of Congress in the state government and administers the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), said that 80% Muslim votes had gone to independent. Despite a withdrawal of this statement, this assumption seems to have triggered the recent attacks. Assumptions are triggering carnages in one part of India, which always been a victim of national indifference. Insurgencies have been raging on in the North East for decades, yet unlike Kashmir – which has become ingrained in public consciousness and the national discourse, one could argue that the North East remains largely ignored. Images of the Manipuri women protesting against the rape & murder of Manorama Devi in 2004, anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila, and shots of training camps of the ULFA are regurgitated time and again in the mass media. While these are powerful and symbolic, they have stereotyped a complex region with so much history with a flattened idea of homogeneity. Everytime a student from the North East gets harassed in Delhi, opinion columns are flooded with words like ‘alienation’, ‘prejudice’ and ‘integration of the North East’. But is there an interest beyond the superficial? In a first of its kind survey about the perception of North East India amongst people in rest of the country conducted by the North East India Image Managers (NEIim) in 2012 , a voluntary group of communication professionals, it was found that 87% respondents could not name all seven states of the North East. As high as 52% had a negative perception, and their immediate recall of ‘North East India’ is that of “a region riddled with insurgency and most unsafe place in the country” or “most under-developed region with hardly any modern infrastructure and poor connectivity with the rest of the country” or “people with mongoloid features and weird food habit and an alien culture”. 76% had no idea about any peace talks going on between govt. and any militant group of NE and 30% said they would never go and work in NE even if that best suits their career interest. When probed on their ignorance on the North-East, 61 % said they do not see much of region on the national media. It’s a chicken and egg situation, if you ask the media why the bias in coverage, they argue a lack of audience interest. Why this is not the right answer is a debate I will leave for another time. Coming back to the survey, while you may choose to argue with the findings, what it does tell you is that the frames of reference are largely skewed. The very fact that the term ‘racism’ has surfaced to describe prejudices and biases that “mainland” Indians hold against “North-Easterners” is gaining currency – should worry the Indian state. It must be understood that the rhetoric of ‘integrating North East with the mainstream’ itself is see as a condescending approach to the issue. This framing of debate as ‘the mainland vs periphery’ with the vision of a homogenous North East is the very essence of the problem. The push for peace in the North East requires a strong national narrative which reconciles many identities. Contested histories, tribal vs. non-tribal ethnicities, failure of State to provide for basics and security in the region, legitimate grievances and the profitable economics of war, have layered and formed the identities of people from this region. Till these nuances are understood and reproduced repeatedly in the national public consciousness and debate, the North East will continue to suffer the indifference. Shruti Pandalai is a journalist and foreign policy analyst currently on a research fellowship with IDSA, a think tank based out of New Delhi. Follow @shrutipandalai This blog first appeared on elections.in The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. 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