The post-Assam incidents in the rest of India had overt and covert dimensions.
The overt dimension related to the protests by groups of Muslims against the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and Assam which were seen in the Azad Maidan of Mumbai on August 5, 2012, and in Lucknow on August 17, 2012.These protests were triggered off by exaggerated accounts of the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and Assam. These exaggerated accounts were disseminated with the help of morphed images through web sites of Islamic fundamentalist organisations, some of them located in Pakistan. The fact that these organisations in Pakistan such as the Jamaat-e-Islami had them uploaded in their web sites does not necessarily mean they had produced them.
Some of the visuals uploaded in many web sites of different organisations had inter alia, morphed images of two incidents-- the large number of dead bodies recovered after an earth quake in the Sichuan province of China some years ago and public protests by the opponents of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok in 2009.The appearance of similar or same morphed images in several web sites across the region indicated a common source of the production of these visuals. This common source has not so far been identified. All we have is the total number of web sites in Pakistan that had uploaded these visuals. These visuals definitely played a part in inflaming passions in Mumbai and Lucknow.
It was reported in sections of foreign media last week that President Thein Sein of Myanmar has brought these morphed images of unconnected incidents that had taken place outside Myanmar to the notice of the OIC delegation that was in Myanmar. He reportedly told the OIC delegation that a false impression of a genocide of the Rohingya Muslims of the Rakhine state of Myanmar was sought to be created through the circulation and uploading of such images. We must get from Myanmar details of all the evidence that they have been able to collect in this regard.
Now, after the damage has been caused in Mumbai and Lucknow, we seem to have woken up and taken action for the blocking of the web sites in Pakistan which had uploaded these provocative visuals. Was it not possible to notice them before and do it? Since the Muslim-Buddhist violence broke out in the Rakhine state in May last, I have been closely monitoring it and had written a number of articles on it. In an article on August 9 before the recent incidents, I had also drawn attention to the dangers of the emergence of what I called a new epicenter of Muslim anger in the Myanmar-Bangladesh-Indian region due to the recent incidents in the Rakhine state and Assam and reported feelings among the Muslim victims of these incidents that there was discrimination against them in the matter of distribution of humanitarian relief. In this connection, please refer to my article dated August 9, 2012, titled Don’t Fuel The Fire. Nobody seems to have paid attention to these developments and taken anticipatory action. However, these were controllable developments and our Police, after having been taken by surprise, was able to control the situation creditably.
The covert dimension related to the circulation of one or more SMS messages among residents from the Northeast living in the South that they would be the targets of violence after the Ramadan fasting period concluded on August 20. There is so far no evidence to show that these SMS messages were incited or inspired or orchestrated from Pakistan. These appear to have been locally incited or inspired or orchestrated by unidentified elements in India.
While details are still lacking, certain unexplainable factors need to be highlighted:
- The messages were disseminated more in the South and Pune than in the North, thereby creating more panic in the South and Pune than in the North.
- These messages appear to have been received only by people from the Northeast living in the South and Pune and not by locals. If bulk messages had been used, this would not have been possible.
- The person or persons who circulated these messages knew the identities of some people from the Northeast and their telephone numbers.
- There were no references in the SMS messages to Assam or Myanmar. The connections appear to have been made by the people who received these messages in their mind, but these were not there in the messages.
- The fact of the threat contained in these messages rapidly spread like prairie fire among the people from the Northeast in the South and Pune and their relatives back home in Assam. This led to mental pressure on some of them to go back to their homes. Some of the pressure was self-generated and some by their relatives in Assam.
It would be unfair to blame the police for being taken by surprise. They could not have known about the impending panic. What we saw in the South and Pune was the herd reflex. Once one member fled, many fled with him or her without applying own mind. One cannot blame the people from the Northeast either. That is the way you and I might have behaved when overtaken by fears which one does not know whether true or not. One was reminded of the famous incident in Chennai during the second World War when a rumour that a Japanese submarine had been spotted led to the exodus of large sections of the city residents to their villages.
According to the media briefing given by the home secretary of the government of India on August 18, the Karnataka police have identified seven suspects of whom three have been taken into custody for interrogation and one more has been identified by the central agencies independently. Better to await authentic details of their background and interrogation.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India