India’s mobile Internet turns local clashes into ethnic confrontation

The panic of people in flight
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

In July, tensions that had long simmered in Assam, a state in northeast India, between members of the Bodo tribe and Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants, came to a boil in a surge of violence, claiming many lives and displacing thousands. It was lamentable that this crisis did not receive as much attention in the national media as it should have, but the fallout of the violence across the country was just as disturbing.

Bit by bit, a regional dispute with a long and complex history involving local political parties, illegal immigration and movement patterns of settlement over decades, was turned, on Internet forums and through text messages, into a Hindu-Muslim faceoff, with all the absence of specificity and projection of stereotypes common to this kind of debate.

Earlier this month, a rally was held in Mumbai, more than 1,500 miles west of the Assam violence, to protest the attacks on Muslims in Assam. Fuelled by doctored videos of violence against Muslims, the protest turned bloody, leaving two people dead and over 100 injured.

A few days later, rumors fanned out in Bangalore, again more than 1,500 miles south of Assam, that the city’s sizeable class of migrants from northeast India might be under attack by Muslims. A vicious campaign of threats over text message led thousands of northeastern migrants to flee the city, in a disturbing echo of the many thousands displaced in Assam. On Wednesday, the Indian Express reported that preliminary investigations revealed that one miscreant in Bangalore, a cellphone repairman, had forwarded inflammatory images and messages to about 20,000 people…

At the heart of this violence was the continuing chasm of understanding that lies between what is called “mainland India” and the seven states of its northeast, which have historically received stepmotherly treatment from New Delhi and found their citizens handled like aliens when they travel to other parts of their own country. As Sanjoy Hazarika wrote in the Hindustan Times on Aug. 19, this ignorance led to thousands of people from the northeast becoming scapegoats…

Meanwhile, back in Assam, thousands of people displaced by the original commotion — the clashes that allowed groups with different ideological convictions to invent or inflame further violence, sometimes with the creative narrative use of modern technology — are just beginning to return home from the relief camps in which they have for weeks been forced to seek refuge.

I can offer little more than empathy from this distance. I haven’t even the advantage of kinship with relatives living in the disturbed areas – or India itself. The roots of colonial exacerbation of religious and ethnic foolishness are nothing new; but, that understanding doesn’t offer – in my mind – any better chance of reason and civic accommodation in India than, say, in the Balkans.

The only start to that process might be in political parties campaigning seriously on unity and civil rights, forming government that recognize the need beyond lip-service. That, too, isn’t a new suggestion.

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