Dawn News

The remote is now a neighbour

TECHNOLOGY has liberated prejudice and its consequence, rumour, from accountability. When the village was still a mere village, and had not gone global, prejudice had a face and a name.

This did not always ameliorate its poisonous warts. Elites took pride in prejudice, and concocted virulent theories to justify inhumanity. They were not content to celebrate their luck; they claimed ‘superiority’ through genes or wealth.

Prejudice has been a traditional basis for social stability and power: go no further than the Indian caste system, which condemned the bottom third of the population to perpetual slavery. It was so useful that it stuck to attitudes even among those who converted to Islam, a religion that affords every individual the dignity of equality before God.

As Elias Canetti has argued so persuasively in his seminal work, Crowds and Power, prejudice transforms itself in the collective. Individuals shed guilt in the stupor of a brute mob, as if the presence of others is an exoneration. The individual escapes the circle of moral restraint, finds cover in anonymity and begins to believe that collective crime is beyond punishment. And so often when there are too many who are guilty, no one is guilty.

A crowd is volatile and electric. This does not make it necessarily negative. The pleasure of watching a game is multiplied by the company of a packed stadium. Religious rites are at their best when congregational. But when mass instinct is fuelled by aggression it trends easily towards barbarism.

Now that the microchip and its productive child, the cellphone, have turned the world into a global village, a crowd does not even need a physical dimension. You can belong to one in the loneliness of a student dormitory. This paradox is a perfect breeding ground for that most fertile source of aggression, fear. Panic is the alter ego of aggression.

Since we recognise ourselves in the other, since we know that there is a deep subconscious human instinct that can turn a placid, timid neighbour next door into a ravenous beast, if only while the horrific spell lasts, trust disappears during panic.

The imagination becomes fertile. From an epicentre in Assam, crosscurrents of violence and fear have infected diverse cities across India. They are also propelled by that dangerous cousin of ignorance, the stereotype.

If there is one word that describes the attitude of most Indians towards our northeast it is ‘remote’. Delhi’s oligarchs are, predictably, the worst offenders, but they are not alone.

Delhi treats the northeast as a psychological suburb. The liberal makes the occasional detour as a tourist into exotica, driven either by the lure of the rhino wrestling in the marshes of Kaziranga or, if you happen to be prime minister without a parliament seat, the welcome possibility of a Rajya Sabha seat, which demands in return nothing more than token gestures.

Most Indians are indifferent: geographically, it is literally beyond another country, Bangladesh, connected by a sliver of land as defenceless as a chicken’s neck. The physical features of the people are different, because ethnicity has already begun to shift further east.

But while no one is troubled by the fact that many Punjabis in northwest India happily resemble the physique of people in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as indeed would befit the genes on either side of the Indus, the northeast is still another land.

One would imagine that attitudes would mellow now that the brilliantly enterprising young men and women of the northeast have sought and got jobs on alongside the ‘mainstream’. But proximity has not yet weakened prejudice. Instead, there has been a belligerent sexist variation: the natural beauty of north-eastern women has added a sexual component to latent aggression. Tensions in the air have thickened.

The confrontation between immigrant Muslims and local populations in Assam is rooted in land and economic productivity. A clash between two stereotypes has turned it into a pan-Indian pandemic.

Violence has been a feature of relations between Hindus and Muslims thanks to the troubled politics of the last one hundred years, long enough to create mental and physical chasms.

Small sections of Muslims, led by men who have learnt that there are tremendous rewards in the perpetuation of fear and isolation, feed the narrative of violence by periodic displays of stupid malevolence, as for instance during the recent demonstration at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.

You can count the immediate victims of that day on your fingers; but millions more were wounded across India in some corner of the psyche. Nothing will happen to the authors of the Mumbai demonstration. An establishment that feeds on their votes will protect them.

But there is something positive in this story; maybe it needs a crisis to make the obvious visible. Young people from the northeast now live wherever economic opportunity invites them. They are integrating into the rest of India in the best way, through its economic sinews. The remote has become a neighbour. Any nation is a work in progress, and this is progress.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

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Comments (23) Closed

Aug 19, 2012 09:31am
i liked this =)
Aug 19, 2012 09:32am
The writer has not addressed the core issues - Assam flooded by millions from Bangladesh. No capability of Indian govts. to tackle the issue. Instead he comments on the apparent symptoms - strikes by tribals in Assam and protest marches that were designed to kill / maim. A lot needs to be done to integrated the people from the NE of India and should be done. But ignoring impact of millions of migrants from Bangladesh is dishonest, and to the dtriment of the nation.
Aug 19, 2012 08:49am
@author I am a great fan of you, sir.. And, i request you being an enlightening hope of this country to educate the uneducated mass to liberate from the web of venom spewing, misleading religious leaders.. Please..
Aug 19, 2012 04:54am
Small sections of Muslims are out to tarnish the entire community but the majority are seeing through this game plan as an effort by this section ta take up political space or help their political masters in the establishment which continues their dangerous policies of conveniently looking away. However, these policies are counter productive and ultimately leads to shrinking of the overall vote share, which is one of the reasons for a coalition form of government and which will probably get accentuated in the next general elections for the ruling dispensation at the centre.
Aug 19, 2012 06:34pm
Excellent analysis, love to read MJ Akbar's columns. It may be be true that migration to a place of economic activity is normal in today's world. This is really in contrast to the sixties and seventies when the migration was rom South to North. I think the rumor would subside once the local Govt. start tracking the SMS messages. Assam situation should be an eye opener for Political parties working on vote banks and deal with immigrants from Bangladesh based on rule of law and not counting their votes.
B R Chawla
Aug 19, 2012 04:45pm
I always marvel the writings of M J. In this case it should be viewed as illegal immigration to the chagrin Of the natives. The politicians wereto be blamed then for eying a vote bank and same class now for eyeing the Muslim votes now the interest of the nation not withstanding. Talking of Muslim brotherhood May I politely ask if the gulf countries can admit their Muslim brethren as legal or illegal immigrants. The nationif above religious considerations for foreign imegrants. Chawla
Aug 19, 2012 05:06pm
Sir, looks like some conclusions you draw are erroneous. When you say " geographically, it is literally beyond another country " what you mean is of course, "politically". The borders with Bangladesh have always been very porous, over the decades. And again, it is the Indian State of Tripura which lies to the East of Bangladesh, and which gave shelter to the maximum number of the ten million refugees who had fled the-then East Pakistan in 1971. This was publicly acknowledged by PM of Bangladesh Sheik Hasina when she made a state visit to Tripura earlier this year. For the record, under the British, the two Bengals were first divided in 1905, then again reunited in 1911, divided again in 1947, and in 1971 of course,became an independent country. Bangladesh itself appears to be in a quandary recently about receiving thousands of Rohingya Muslims the third time round in as many decades. Ultimately, it does look like 1947 was the watershed year in which the seeds for all this were sown. It certainly seems to demand enormous political will from all concerned to bring satisfactory solutions.
anil john
Aug 19, 2012 01:19pm
Interesting not a single post here is by a pakistani, or a muslim. I think Dawn should launch an Indian edition.
Aug 19, 2012 10:15am
STOP BANGLADESHI IMMIGRATION TO INDIA...... We need to make sure that all of they staying in India illegally is been thrown out of the country... If any nation in the world feels bad about india's decission to through all illegal migrants mostly muslim, those nations should give these people permanent visa's.. Come on Pakistan give all illegal Bangladeshi migrants permanent visa of your country..!!!!!1
Aug 19, 2012 09:58am
You logic is quite weak when you write, "...it (Assam) is literally beyond another country, Bangladesh, ..... the physical features of the people are different...". Because, for example, for Germans in the North, the South of their country is beyond not one but several countries: The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic. In physical attributes the average North German also differs from his Southern counterpart. This does not make one group claim the other is "less" German. So it is no big deal that parts of India, which is far bigger than Germany, are 'beyond' another country or that its people have different physical features.
Aug 19, 2012 09:55am
@M.J. Akbar: Your logic is quite weak when you write, "...it (Assam) is literally beyond another country, Bangladesh, ..... the physical features of the people are different...". Because, for example, for Germans in the North, the South of their country is beyond not one but several countries: The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech Republic. In physical attributes the average North German also differs from his Southern counterpart. This does not make one group claim the other is "less" German. So it is no big deal that parts of India, which is far bigger than Germany, are 'beyond' another country (which as part of India) or that its people have different physical features.
Aug 19, 2012 11:12am
Brilliant - "any nation is a work in progress". MJ is a pleasure to read.
Dr Arvind Das
Aug 19, 2012 05:03am
Have always admired your writing skills & analysis sincce childhood.
Aug 19, 2012 03:13pm
Well written article.....Most people including eminent Journalists will find India well understood but surprisingly they in time they realize that there undertanding is still inadequate....India is myriad of differences co existing together...what makes these problems are also these differences but keeps India flock together is the magnitude and dimension of these differences is huge that is difficult for an individual to grasp....indias future will be unique...but is very much interlinked with humanitys future
Aug 19, 2012 11:27am
MJ Akbar always writes a thought provoking article which is relevant to the strength of social fabric of India.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 19, 2012 06:03am
"They were not content to celebrate their luck; they claimed ‘superiority’ through genes or wealth" or the will of God making them special.
Aug 19, 2012 06:23am
We shall overcome this !!! As you said brilliantly " Any nation is a work in progress and this is progress".
Aug 19, 2012 06:24am
Jingoism and communal politics played by a section of ambitious leaders are the root cause.
Aug 19, 2012 06:29am
Well written by an eminent journalist. The positive aspect of this sorry episode is that the rest of India is realising the contributions being made by NE Indians. The late rally to stem the reverse migration is a manifestation of this. In a multplural society like India, everybody's contribution is needed to enrich the country.
Aug 19, 2012 06:33am
Reading you carefully for the first time. Really good writing style.
Aug 19, 2012 07:41am
It is not just the "natural beauty of North-East women" (a euphemism for their fair complexion), but also the unsubstantiated and racist assumption of the mainland Indian male that North-East women have "loose morals" which has contributed the problem. Peace in NE is fragile at best and more and more people North-Easterners are coming to Metros looking for work. The least we could do is provide a measure of safety and respect their dignity.
Aug 19, 2012 08:09am
Kick out the Bangladesi immigrant from India. Problem solved.
mangesh sird
Aug 19, 2012 09:39am
Well said,dear Akbar ! WE SHALL PREVAIL ..... Din`t we prevailed the barbarian attacks of the invaders in the last 2500 years ? the GREEKS ,Shakas ,Hunns,Persians , Turks,Arabs, Mughals, The Portuguese ,The French,The Dutch, The English, The Chinese and the other sundries ? WE SHALL PREVAIL !