All politics may ultimately be local, but it is dangerous to reduce it to the parochial. The All Assam Students’ Union seemed to have ignored the dangers of playing the parochial card when it organized a bandh in the state to protest against the attack in Bihar on some railway passengers from the Northeast. It was a criminal act, and the fact that it occurred as a reaction to the assault on some Bihari candidates for the railway recruitment board examinations in Guwahati does not detract from its viciousness. In fact, both incidents were straightforward matters of crime, which should have been dealt with by the two state governments. Bihar’s chief minister, Ms Rabri Devi, showed a rare determination by punishing two senior officials of her government for failing to prevent the violence in the state. Unfortunately, the AASU’s bandh gave the whole episode a dangerously parochial slant reminiscent of its “anti-foreigner” movement of the Eighties. The AASU has long been marginalized in the state’s politics and may have its own interests in trying to exploit the issue. But the consequences of such bad politics could be disastrous for Assam and the Assamese. It cannot do the state any good if outsiders feel threatened or unwelcome in Assam. It is not just a question of alienating the Biharis working in Assam’s tea gardens and other industries. It is more a question of sending out a wrong signal about the state.
Xenophobia is usually both a cause and an effect of underdevelopment. No economic logic can support the demand that certain jobs in the railways or any other public utility be reserved exclusively for the local people. Accepting such a demand would open a pandora’s box all over the country, making the people of one state outsiders in all other states. It is true that the entire northeastern region lacks industries and adequate employment opportunities. But to expect government jobs to solve the unemployment problem is to get the economic logic wrong. What Assam needs is not another spell of xenophobic politics, but a new strategy of growth that would unleash new productive forces and thereby create jobs. Special economic packages from the Centre could go some way in ensuring this. But the state government has to work on policies that would create the right conditions. The state’s finances being what they are, it is only an infusion of private capital that can substantively change the state’s economy. But potential investors would be wary if parochialism prevails over economic sense. Assam cannot afford to slip back into another anti-outsider agitation.