From time to time, a rage against 'outsiders' is
whipped up in different parts of the country by extremist political groupings,
who then resort to varying degrees of violence against hapless innocents,
ordinarily among the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population. In
the most recent wave of such violence, in Manipur, a succession of three
incidents against 'Hindi-speaking' outsiders between March 17 and 19, 2008,
resulted in the killing of 15 'migrants'.
In 2007, there had been three such attacks, two in October and one in March, in which five migrant labourers and two petty traders were murdered. There have also been misguided calls for the 'revival' of Inner Line Permit regulations in Manipur (abolished as far back as 1950) to prevent the entry of outsiders into the state.
But Manipur is not alone in these isolationist excesses. In neighbouring Assam, six migrant workers have been killed in two attacks this year, and as many as 88 were killed, and 33 injured in 12 such incidents in 2007. Indeed, waves of xenophobic violence have swept across Assam repeatedly since 1979, variously targeting Bangladeshis, Bengalis, Biharis and Marwaris.
In Meghalaya, the Federation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Peoples -- claiming to represent indigenous tribes of the state -- issued thousands of quit notices against 'outsiders' in April 2007, provoking a brief panic, though threats of violence were not subsequently carried out beyond a few low intensity clashes. Tribal ire in Meghalaya is particularly directed against Marwaris, Bengalis and Biharis.
Similarly, in Nagaland, the Naga Students Federation has sought to push out suspected illegal migrants since 2004. Arunachal Pradesh has had a succession of 'anti-outsider' movements since 1992, targeting Chakma and Hajong refugees, and more recently, Bangladeshis. Tripura has had a full blow insurgency that mobilised tribal anger against the Bengalis, as tribal populations were progressively reduced to a minority in the state.
The North-East, of course, has long been an area of poor governance and breakdown of law and order. Protecting migrant populations here is difficult because policing is poor, insurgencies rage across wide areas, many regions have poor access, and migrant populations are widely dispersed.
But such feelings are hardly limited to this troubled region, and 'son-of-the-soil' sentiments and a paranoia that 'outsiders' are grabbing scarce local jobs and opportunities are periodically whipped up by opportunistic politicians in locations across the country, including metropolitan cities that have been raised out of the blood, sweat and tears of migrants.
With little warning, for instance, a marginalised political formation in Mumbai, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), was able to orchestrate a handful of incidents against hapless taxi drivers, hawkers and other poor 'outsiders' -- eventually resulting in wider violence that ironically claimed the life of one Maharashtrian in Nashik. This was not the first time this stratagem had been exploited by this particular party; in 2007, MNS activists stormed an examination centre of the Railway Recruitment Board of the Western Railways in Pune, and beat and tore up the papers of candidates appearing for the recruitment exam. Other regional formations have also systematically exploited 'son-of-the-soil' sentiments in Maharashtra from time to time.
Punjab has also seen sporadic targeted attacks against 'bhaiyas' -- migrant labourers usually from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar -- though these workers are now the mainstay of the agricultural and urban economy, ordinarily doing jobs that the Punjabi deems beneath his dignity. Karnataka has seen movements against Tamils and Malayalees since the 1960s. Tamil Nadu has targeted North Indians and Malayalees; West Bengal has seen violence against Biharis.
But the logic of these movements is uniformly flawed -- though the rationale may have strong local appeal in some situations. Isolationism has only brought weakness to areas that have failed to integrate into the national mainstream and -- crucially -- the national infrastructure and economy. Where barriers have been put up against migration -- including the Inner Line Permit regime in the North-East -- this has only encouraged illegal migration, which brings in the poorest and most unskilled human resources from other regions or countries.
Legal migration, on the other hand, brings a far better profile of migrants, investors, skilled workers and technical and technological manpower. To take a quick example, anti-outsider politics has progressively pushed out 'outsiders' from educational institutions across the North-East -- and some of the finest institutions have seen a continuous erosion, indeed collapse, of standards that has worked to the perpetual detriment of the people of the region itself.
Regions, states and cities that are most open to, and welcoming of, migrants, are invariably the most dynamic and productive. The US is an exceptional example, attracting some of the finest talent and disproportionate quantities of investment from across the world. Within India, Mumbai has historically profited immensely from this process of assimilation, while Bangalore and Delhi come to mind as some of the new dynamic 'melting pots'. Where isolationist sentiments escalate beyond the threshold of violence, this dynamic is inevitably reversed -- though often slowly and unnoticeably -- and the nations, states and cities that come under this malignant shadow inevitably enter processes of decay.
Decades of fratricidal inter-tribal warfare and violence against outsiders have transformed the North-East -- one of the regions most generously endowed by nature -- into a human wasteland. But with the barriers of their own prejudices disintegrating, at least in some measure and in some segments of the population, thousands of young people from the North-East are now securing jobs across metropolitan India. Of course, they are confronted with some prejudice themselves, just as outsiders in the North-East face tribal or racial bigotry.
But this new exposure can only enrich them, create greater skills, a better understanding of other people and cultures, and -- crucially -- greater confidence, which can only contribute to a more prosperous future for their places of origin. The skills, attitudes and wealth they gain in their new environments will, eventually, flow homewards to transform the stagnant and backward looking North-East region.
It can be no one's case that violence against migrants -- some of whom have lived for generations in their adopted homes -- cannot be prevented or, once initiated, quickly quelled. The problem is the lack of political will and the collusion of the larger political establishment, which seeks electoral advantage, if not directly from the violence, then, indirectly, from a sympathetic posture.
In this, the basic commitment of the Chief Minister of a state is paramount. To the extent that he is willing to back the enforcement of the rule of law, such incidents and the politics that backs them can be quelled. And even if a single person is forced to leave his home, his city or his state out of fear, this constitutes an abject failure of the enforcement agencies and political leadership, and a breakdown of the constitutional order.
K.P.S.Gill is former director-general of police, Punjab. He is also Publisher, SAIR and President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was first published in The Pioneer