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.

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