India has great cultural wealth. A multi-religion, multi-language population comprising several ethnic groups makes us rich. We can truly boast of enjoying the unity in diversity. However, this uniqueness in composition also carries its own problems. What happened in Azad Maidan in Mumbai on 11 August 2012 and its ripple effect across the country is a cause for great concern. It really hurts those of us who spent many years of their military service in different areas of northeast and came to admire the simplicity and human values of the people there. The unfortunate exodus of our fellow Indians from some States, even if instigated by doctored electronic propaganda, impels introspection.
The host States deserve to be complimented for handling the unfortunate exit of students and workers in a sensible, sensitive and humane manner. Most of them have either come back or are returning. Equally worthy of compliments are those corporations that have promised to restore them to their previous jobs.
This episode had the potential of creating lasting alienation between our citizens of the Northeast and the rest of the country. Luckily, that was avoided. However, it would be a mistake to ignore it and move on, as we often do. There seems little doubt that the mischief originated in a neighbouring country. Buoyed by this success our neighbour is likely to further sharpen its tricks.
Ironically, India with the highest tech savvy population was left to passively defend against a cyber attack instead of counter attacking. We have still not fully realised Pak intentions to hurt us, despite the mass of historical evidence since 1947. The fact that there has not been a major terrorist attack against India since 26/11 should not be interpreted as a change of heart on the part of our neighbour and any contrary inference would be imprudent and risky.
The relative quiet has been mandated by a deteriorating relationship with the United States and a worsening situation along its western borders, and no General wants to fight on two fronts simultaneously. On the ground, the LeT continues its fundraising unhindered; not a single training camp has been closed; attempts at infiltration into J&K continue under the covering fire provided by Pakistani posts; the prosecution of the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist attack has become a farce [with only Ajmal Kasab prosecuted successfully because he was in our custody]. Our overtures of peace have elicited only meaningless rhetoric.
The recent mischief to frighten our fellow Indians from the Northeast is a new front and we need to be prepared for it. A few lessons from this episode are noteworthy and need addressing. Even if it hurts our national pride, it has to be admitted that it was rather easy to frighten our north-eastern countrymen into a stampede. This indicates that they were apparently feeling insecure in the host States. More proactive attempts need to be made to integrate and welcome them by our religious and social organizations, corporations and universities. Ignorance leads to prejudice and fear. It is the job of civil society to remove it. A government cannot do it. Among other things, it will help if our media and education institutions run mass awareness programmes and serials about the rest of India, particularly States and regions whose residents are studying and living across the country, and are not so well known and understood.
Unfortunately, some of the people from the northeast were attacked while passing through minority neighbourhoods. The police should have taken firmer action. To say that the matter is being investigated is too much of a déjà vu to inspire confidence.
Another unsettling fact was that the appeal and assurances of our Prime Minster and Parliament, the highest institutions of our country, fell on deaf ears. The student and workers of the northeast either believed that the assurances were insincere or, more likely, that these institutions were incapable of fulfilling these.
The fact that our police just a few days earlier was found incapable to protect even itself in Azad Maidan, could have reinforced their apprehensions. The unfortunate spectacle was watched over the mass media by the entire country, and does considerable damage to our society and lends credence to rumours of impending attacks. The fact that no meaningful follow-up has taken place on that rioting beyond arresting a few foot-soldiers who were caught on the CCTV feeds public fear and foreboding. Law enforcement is a basic function of the State and must not be compromised for expediency.
It is the responsibility of Indian Muslim religious leaders to ponder whether importing foreign quarrels into India is appropriate. There is no denying that Rohingyas are suffering in Myanmar and have been rejected by Bangladesh. But how are they a responsibility of the Muslims in Mumbai? Why did Muslim Bangladesh next door not allow them to enter its territory and even refused to provide water and food to Rohingyas stranded on its border islands? No Muslim nation in the world raised more than a token voice on their behalf. The violent support by Mumbai Muslims cannot in anyway help the hapless Rohingyas.
While solidarity of ummah in religious matters is understandable, rioting for that solidarity is not permitted. In public life, one’s religion cannot colour one’s conduct. This must be understood and followed by every citizen irrespective of faith or ethnicity.
The author is a former deputy chief of army staff
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