It is not uncommon for mass violence in one place to spark a reaction in another. But the fear that prompted people from India’s Northeast to flee cities in the south is a very different matter. Their flight was caused not by reactive events, but by rumoured threats. Such rumours have caused enormous harm in the past, and it is understandable why the people from the Northeast reacted the way they did. What is more disturbing, however, is that the rumours smacked of a sinister plot to distort facts about the recent violence in Assam and to use the distortion for evil purposes. As in all such incidents of mass violence, there were two groups of people involved in the flare-up in Assam. The victims included both indigenous Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims. It was only days after the violence that a different narrative about it was concocted — that of a premeditated anti-Muslim pogrom. The subsequent violence in Mumbai and now the rumours that drove people from the Northeast from the southern cities are ample evidence that vested interests are out to cynically exploit the tragedy in Assam. The people of Bangalore, like the residents of Mumbai, had never linked entire communities from the Northeast to the violence in Assam. The mischief-mongers who used technology in order to spread the rumours thus do not represent the people of either city or in other parts of the country.
Yet, the rumours and the fright that these caused say much about how the rest of India views or imagines the Northeast. It is strange that seven states are merged in a vague, geographical category, as if their diversities and specificities do not matter. For the average person in other parts of India, therefore, an Assamese is hardly distinguishable from a Manipuri or one from Nagaland. Such insensitivity is only partly the result of ignorance. It is born of a failure on the part of the State to make and execute policies that should have made the Northeast as integral to the national consciousness as any other region. It is known why the British did not want too much interaction between the rest of India and the “excluded areas”, as most of the Northeast was then called. It is a shame that the undercurrent of exclusion is still so strong about one particular region of the country. The sense of alienation that the exclusion of the Northeast creates among the local people is at the heart of the ethnic insurgencies there.
The exodus poses a challenge for both governments and people not only in the Northeast but also elsewhere in the country. Tarun Gogoi’s government in Assam failed completely to prevent the tragedy in the Bodo-inhabited areas last month. It cannot afford to fail again. The exodus from the south is a warning that passions — and provocations — are still dangerously high. But the events also hold a challenge to people in other parts of India — it is time they learnt to know the Northeast.