Friday, 17 August 2012


The phone rang last night.  It was one of our new interns from the Union Biblical Seminary.  He had got a phone-call from home in Manipur.  They wanted to know if he was alright.  They had seen images on TV of people from the NorthEast fleeing from Pune and Bangalore.

I have lived in the town this young man comes from.  It is not the most peaceful place on earth.  I have heard gun-shots fired between security forces and local insurgents during a terror attack - and an army rampage afterwards.

So here are people from this town calling Thane to find out if their son is safe and sound.


Because for the last month a terrible struggle has been going on between immigrant Muslims and the Bodos - a tribal group - in Assam.  Last Sunday a large group of Muslims protested this at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai.  The police was out in force as they had been requested to provide security for a peaceful protest.  But then things got out of hand.  A section of the crowd started attacking the police and the press.  Vans and busses were burned.  A baton-charge took place.  People were running here and there.  Firing took place.  Two were killed.  One had a long history of such violent agitations - and had been externed from his area a number of times by the local police.

Now here is where the tale takes off.

The Mumbai police - to its credit - managed to diffuse an explosive situation.  The two men were buried quickly and carefully with the help of local religious leaders.  The press remained fairly neutral (a certain vernacular rag of course did not - but was not able to fan the flames too much).  Prominent leaders from the Muslim community immediately distanced themselves from the actions of the rioters.

But in Pune - of all places - the next weekend people from the North East started to be singled out for beatings.  Young men who looked like they were from the north-east were attacked by mobs.  It seems that clips of alleged violence in Assam (shown to be spliced images of attacks on Tibetans and Thais) have been circulating with calls to 'rise up and fight the Chinis.' 

And this seems to have put the whole situation out of kilter.  People from the North East of India have always received the brunt of 'main-land' opinion - ranging from sheer ignorance (are you Indians or Chinese? - you must be from Nepal) to various shades of racist stereotypes.

Then the SMSes started.  In Bangalore (oops make the Bengaluru) and in Pune people started receiving SMSes saying the fresh attacks on NorthEasterners are expected.  It was too much for many.  They packed up.  And left. Hundreds and thousands of them.  Packing the airport.  Overflowing at the railway station.  As we write those packed trains are trundling towards Guwahati in Assam.

The government response?  Order another train!  And then tell people that they are safe.

It speaks a lot that rumours can spark such an exodus.   It speaks a lot of the very fragile trust that our countrymen have for the government.  We are a huge country - with massive armed forces and a long history of constitutional elections, with courts and government structures galore.  But when it comes down to trust in what the authorities say - people clearly voted with their feet.  Call it hysteria, call it fear - it shows how much work remains to build the civil society that our forefathers dreamed of.

So I talked to my friend.  We agreed that not a single incident of violence towards people from the NorthEast had taken place in Mumbai or Thane.  We decided that he and his colleague would remain with us.  We will pray and continue to serve.

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