The North-East BlogKnow what leading academics, writers, poets, musicians, activists and journalists from the region have to say to develop an informed perspective on matters related to this part of India.
Let's not be ashamed to admit it but we in the North-East have a strong Delhi fixation. Now that both the Prime Minister and Union home minister have visited the riot-affected areas, the cries of neglect would have temporarily died down even if nothing much is achieved by the visits of the two worthies. And what an irony that P Chidambaram should return from Assam to hand over his responsibilities to Sushil Kumar Shinde, a man whose achievement slate is as blank as it could get. Left to the public, the verdict for Shinde would have been "hang him" for putting the country through a shameful and unprecedented power crisis that is the current theme for the global media. "India global superpower aspirant in a power crisis," was the shrieking indictment from the foreign media. That not so power(ful) misadventure has taken the headlines away from Assam to Northern India.
Several students of journalism in different parts of this country, with whom one is in touch with, are trying to understand the situation in Assam. But since all the space that the national media can devote to the tragedy of at least four lakh people being homeless and over 50 dead, is three column inches for two days and then a blank, many are trying to understand things better by seeing them with our eyes. In this the social media has been more active. Facebookers and other cyberspace sites gave a blow by blow account of the incidents as they unfolded everyday. There are do-gooders in every part of India willing to lend a helping hand. Many groups are visiting the conflict areas to offer succour by way of relief materials. So it is not that the average Indian is heartless. It is the political class that has learnt to take every bloodbath with a huge dose of salt. What is tragedy to millions is only a small nuisance to them. They believe money solves all problems. Shame!
After the recent floods devastated several lakh people, the Prime Minister paid an aerial visit. Having satisfied himself that indeed there was a deluge, he promised a package of Rs 500 crore (Don't ask me how the assessment is done and who has done it). Can Rs 500 crore rebuild lives and restore the dignity of several lakh people? The Asom Gana Parishad raised the pitch to Rs 30,000 crore. They of course believe that the Congress party has a mint in Delhi. Is this not some kind of political power play rather than a genuine concern for people who have lost their life's earnings?
Then came the ethnic rampage. It was a flame lit by a few with vested political interests and look at the conflagration it has caused. And all because the state did not have the spine to arrest the rabble rousers from both communities (Muslims and Bodos) before things went berserk! Should there not be a demand for a fact-finding mission to get to the genesis of the present riot? Should the perpetrators not be publicly flogged for causing such unprecedented human suffering? But I guess our attentions get diverted from one thing to another and we do not really care about what has happened. Life goes on for most of usbut not for those consigned to the horrors of living in a relief camp minus the (cold) comfort of a home, no matter how small or pitiable. Destitution is the book of life for many in this country.
The worst part about relief packages is that they never reach the targeted population (as opposed to beneficiaries). Out of Rs 500 crore earmarked for flood relief, hardly one fifth will really be utilised. The bureaucracy in this country is ill-equipped to deliver anything, least of all relief. The hierarchy prevents quick delivery and there is politics in the way the affected are identified. There are NGOs with credible backgrounds and expertise in flood relief and/or handling the aftermath of communal riots. They should be identified and pressed into action if they are not already doing it voluntarily with their meagre resources. The Lutheran church and Catholic Relief Services besides other para-church organisations have always been with suffering people. The Missionaries of Charity and the congregation of St Augustine have taken over relief responsibilities in the riot hit areas. German Agro Action working through the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) has been exemplary in their flood and relief work and in rehabilitating the displaced. If the Government of Assam is sincere about reaching out to the destitutes in relief camps, it has to partner with these organisations.
Considering that Assam is suffering from annual floods and bouts of ethnic uprisings, it is ironic that there is as yet no known template for a Government-NGO partnership not just to douse the flames after they have scarred people and razed their homes but to act as catalysts for peace building.
We have not seen the last of the ethnic riots in Assam. The sub-text of every homeland demand is that there are, within those demarcated ethnic spaces, other people as well who have equal claims to a home. Often the population of those "others" put together exceeds that of the group which claims the sole right to rule over their homeland in an almost self-destructive manner by adopting the skewed policy of exclusion. Are those from other parts of Assam and India who have settled in those 'once ethnic homelands' expected to watch in helplessness as they are divested of their constitutional rights? Will they not protest, if not peacefully then with guns and bombs when the going gets really tough for them and they are unable to access their rights?
The problem in Assam is not just about the unabated illegal migration from Bangladesh which has gone on for several decades under the watchful eyes of the state but of these contentious homeland demands. A reality check on the first problem it that illegal migrants today form a substantial chunk of Assam's population. A large section of the indigenous Assamese with the wherewithal to start life away from the perennial stench of riots and insurrections has left its soil for greener pastures. They hurt but cannot do much for their "homeland". The rest who still have to mange their lives in this shrunken living space seem like a helpless lot. There is no effective plan of action to tackle further illegal migration and no seriousness on the part of the government to seal the borders. A huge percentage of funds meant for poverty alleviation and health care such as the MNREGA and NRHM in fact go to the migrants who also happen to be the poorest. Assam faces the paradox of not being able to identify its own citizens any longer.
To add to the first problem is the series of homeland demands which, in most cases, are tenuous and reek of deep-seated parochialism. While the rulers of Dispur are to be blamed for the neglect that some of these areas suffer and the Delhi Durbar for further convoluting the process with its uninformed interventions, the fact also remains that when political and financial autonomy is handed over to the agitating actors, the narratives of the oppressed within that society remains unchanged. So in effect we are looking at empowering a miniscule section of the ethnic elite which has both the idiom of political expression and gun power to threaten the insouciant rulers in Dispur and Delhi. In both cases, Assam is hugely compromised. It is no position to launch any long-term programme to recover its pride. Its rulers can only fire-fight from time to time. Perhaps Assam would do well to strengthen its fire-fighting machinery but it has lost the zest even for that. The beleaguered Tarun Gogoi is busy deflecting blame from himself towards Delhi to the point of being reprimanded by the Prime Minister. But how can anyone blame him? Everything seems to be falling apart like a house of cards!
(The writer is Editor, The Shillong Times and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)