Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ethnic Violence in Assam?

Its typically very easy to fall into the narrative of the day, just a few short decades ago (I was even alive for this) the overarching narrative was West versus Soviet, democracy versus communism. It permeated everything, academia, politics, news, and the media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the current conflict narrative has largely focused on ethnic violence. However, this narrative has a subplot since 2001 communal (that is, religious) differences has also taken a center stage in our (the public's) understanding of many conflicts.

This narrative is driven largely by our understanding of collective identities. What defines a person? Their place of birth? Their style of worship? Their sexual orientation? Their income? Truthfully, all and more of these questions play a role in the definition of "me." Depending on your geographic location, the acculturation and socialization process of "me" typically identifies which identities are most important for belonging. Of course, this also varies according to geographic scope. I may be a Tamil to Gujarati, but I'm a Christian Tamil who grew up in Pondicherry to a Hindu Tamil who grew up in Madurai, and I'm also a poor Christian Tamil from a bad neighborhood while my wealthy Christian Tamil went to private school on a yacht in the harbor. Conflicts, which involve groups of people, are often organized and presented as between static, monolithic communal identities.

While the human condition dictates that we simplify our world in order to better understand it, oversimplification causes us to miss the nuance of phenomena. In terms of violent conflicts, we forget that the actors involved maintain a variety of identities, some or all of which could motivate a conflict.

The Times of India and others have been reporting the ongoing violence in Assam over the last few days. Often the line taken is a combination of the ethnic and religious differences, in this case between the Bodo tribal community and Muslim Bengali immigrants (some of who may or may not be legal). According to the article the trouble started with the murder of a number of Bodos by unknown (at this point) miscreants. The Bodo community assumed it was Muslim Bengalis, a community which has been targeted for years. News outlets often attribute the violence to communal/ethnic tensions between the Bodos and Bengalis.

While difference in language and religious practice don't always foster good relations, the loss of employment and opportunities for the Bodos by immigrant Bengalis must surely rankle. However, perpetuating a pogrom is not a solution. The Times of India article alleges that the security forces in Assam, including the army, are content to sit back and not intervene in the targeting of Bengali or Bodo communities. This has created a situation in which almost 100,000 people are now internally displaced people. These people require government support and immediate assistance.

Both the government of Assam and of India need to continually acknowledge that this violence is beyond communal identities, it is rooted in the chronic underdevelopment of northeastern India. It is apparent that Bengalis will continue to immigrate (legally and otherwise) to Assam for work or simply to get into India and then to find work elsewhere. Border security will not help. The only solution is for the two national governments (India and Bangladesh) to agree to joint programs to address the economic and social underdevelopment of northern Bangladesh and Assam. Only then will immigration ease and "communal" tensions abate.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mamata seeks to return West Bengal to feudal farming

The Times of India recently reported that Chief Minister (of the West Bengal government) Mamata Banerjee is seeking to limit the geographic areas where private businesses can purchase land for improvement. In other words, the government is seeking to limit industrialization to other areas that it designates. Her reasoning is that the areas to be excluded are "fertile" for, presumably, agricultural purposes and she is thus preventing a "food crisis." The areas designated for development include Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum, and West Midnapur.   Evidently, the government doesn't want these developments in North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, and areas of Burdwan, Nadia, and Murshidabad.

Bangla Nation can agree to some of this but disagrees on the principle. The government should be allowed to  ameliorate the impact of private-funded industrialization, for instance, ensuring that tenants of the purchased land are properly compensated and placed in vocational programs (should they opt for it). The government should not wholesale prevent development for isolationist motives.

The Chief Minister incorrectly assumes that "fertile" agricultural land translates to preventing a food crisis. There may very well be a food crisis if the entire state of West Bengal was given to agriculture, some things are out of the government's control. In this case, the best defense against a food crisis is the enrichment and economic development of the population to ensure that they can purchase food that is available. The government's role, besides ensuring the population's enrichment and development, is to make sure food is available from any source whether it be from West Bengal, India, or abroad. And then there is the Maoist question.

I fully support the idea of driving development to "Maoist-infested" districts like Bankura, Purulia, and West Midnapur, however, development without security gains is utterly meaningless. Furthermore, what industrialist would want to invest in such a situation? Equitable economic and human development does need to come to these areas, but so does physical security. West Bengal's and the Centre's security forces should concentrate on carving out relative islands of prosperity that are attractive for development and industrialization programs from private firms. Once investment begins in a relative secure atmosphere, other human development projects can be introduced to ensure more healthcare and education for the residents. This approach not only deals effectively with the Maoist threat, but erodes that group's power base by showing the people who is really looking out for them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Protecting the border with torture

Times of India is reporting (link) that the Supreme Court is seeking outside officers to investigate alleged human rights abuses among India's Border Security Force (BSF) on the West Bengal side of the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The alleged BSF actions include extra-judicial killings, torture, and rape.

Given the often tumultuous situation on the border between the two countries, we shouldn't be surprised if the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR, the Bangladesh border guards) engaged in their own acts of violence.

Bangla Nation has posted previously on questionable BSF (link) activities in Meghalaya state, India. Our opinion remains the same, the Indian state must act evenly and responsibly in all of its corners, whether its down the block from the Lok Sabha or in the ranges of Arunachal Pradesh.

Unfortunately these wanton acts of barbarity also reflect a growing undercurrent of Indian nationalism, which is typically on display on the Times of India comment boards. It is typically easy to dismiss such empty sentiments as "waste Bengal" but the BSF's activities should give the Centre pause.

A revealing study would entail releasing the information of those BSF soldiers who engages in these acts, where they were trained, and where they spent their formative years. Such a study might be illuminating.