‘In a region with such diversities of ethnicity, religion and race, extreme views are dangerous...’
Moderate voices muted in Assam
Political economy today is generated by radicalism. Gone are the days of the moderate. The media expects people to take a stand for or against an issue, quite forgetting that most human problems cannot be dissected by black or white lenses.
There are so many grey areas. Also problems do not just emerge in a year or two years. They are the products of accumulated angst built over a long period of time.
As a participant observer of the Kokrajhar events and the hysteria and cacophony thereafter, one has observed two very important developments. Moderate Muslim voices have been silenced. So, too, the moderate voices from among the Bodos. The only voices heard today are of the Bodo hardliners.
Today, the issue of the Bangladeshi Muslim alien in Assam is so constructed that he/she is responsible for Assam’s present predicament. Any attempt to look at the issue with rational lenses is fraught with the present danger of being labelled pro-Muslim and therefore pro-Bangladeshi. Can there be any discussion on peace and resettlement in this volatile climate? Ironically, today every known organisation and public intellectual in Assam seems to have made common cause against the “illegal immigrant.” Governance deficiencies have conveniently been swept under the carpet.
Even the gaffe by the defence ministry, which delayed sending troops to Kokrajhar to halt the imminent riots, now seems to have been shunted to the backburner.
Meanwhile, there is a dangerous polarisation by radical elements who are taking advantage of the situation to build a political economy engendered by the recent outburst of hatred and violence in Kokrajhar.
The term illegal immigration is itself hugely faulty. A person who overstays his visa is an illegal migrant. One who surreptitiously slips in through the borders, sans documents is an alien. There is no such entity as an “illegal immigrant.”
The number of aliens in Assam is difficult to determine because of many reasons. Nearly every person who has been recorded in the last census of 2011 has some documents to prove his/her citizenship.
The population of Assam as recorded in 2011 stands at 3.12 crore. The rest with doubtful identities are put through a process of establishing their citizenship through the tribunals set up by the government.
Government figures reveal that between 2009 and 2011, 58,932 Bangladeshi nationals who legally entered the country have not returned. In short, they have overstayed their visas. They are illegal migrants.
The numbers of those who have illegally crossed the borders remain fuzzy. The government of Assam and for that matter, even the Centre, does not seem to have any system to tackle this problem which all are talking about with some amount of synchronicity at the moment. The government of Assam has demanded from the Centre that 64 more tribunals be set up to hear cases of “Bangladeshi aliens.” This was one of the demands in the Assam Accord signed in 1985 between the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Rajiv Gandhi government. But even the existing tribunals are not progressing at a reasonable pace. There are hurdles galore posed by manpower shortage and other administrative hassles. Just how difficult it is to determine who is a foreigner can be gauged from the fact that between 2010 and 2012 the 36 tribunals set up were able to a detect and declare only 5,652 as ‘illegal immigrants’.
The more laughable part is that of those, only 134 could actually be deported. So the noise and hysteria about being swarmed by aliens from across the border and “Muslims” at that, seems like a largely misplaced bogey. The truth is lost in rhetoric.
The whole issue has turned into a cocktail of populism, bad politics, ethnocentrism, radicalisation of ideas and perceptions and polemics based on unsubstantiated claims and counter-claims. Deportation of foreign nationals from Bangladesh requires a better understanding with our neighbouring country and its acceptance that there is indeed illegal crossing over of Bangladeshis into Assam and therefore the need to take back those deported. From what we can glean there is absolute denial about the issue in Bangladesh.
What is curious about the situation in Assam today is the muting of moderate voices whether they are Muslims, Bodos, Asomiyas or others. The hysteria and cacophony has drowned out voices of sanity, which are integral to any peace process. Assamese Muslims are silent because any articulation at this point would be construed as giving a fillip to the Bangladeshi Muslims.
They would immediately be accused of supporting overtly or covertly their co-religionists. Moderate Bodos are being sidelined. The situation is such that every Bodo must take a hardened position vis-à-vis the Muslims residing in their area. Whether the Muslim is a Bangladeshi or not is immaterial.
In a region with such diversities of ethnicity, religion and race, extreme views are dangerous because everyone then is in a race about who can do better posturing. At this juncture the hardliners are taking their respective positions not because they seek to bring equilibrium in a highly volatile situation but because they wish to mobilise people for vested political interests. This is where the problem lies.
A study authored by Michael McCluskey and Young Mie Kim in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, a SAGE journal and an official journal of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication says, “Extremes are more intuitively novel, entertaining, and colourful, representing another common news value. Moderate voices may be more difficult to portray as exciting than extreme voices.”
The report says, “McCluskey and Kim examined 208 political advocacy groups that represented a range of political ideologies as they were represented across 118 newspapers.
They found that groups that expressed more polarised opinions on political issues were mentioned in larger newspapers, appeared earlier in articles, and were mentioned in more paragraphs.
The authors wrote, “More people had the opportunity to note those groups, fuelling perceptions of those groups as important or legitimate.” The authors also pointed out that moderate views are less easy to define than more radical opinions and that discussing extreme views make it easier to explain the issue at hand.
Absence of intellectuals
Is this what’s happening in Assam? Are moderate voices too few and fragmented to make sense? Alternatively, is the need to belong to a religious or ethnic group more important than standing up as a solitary voice for what one believes in? Is the space for articulation of moderate views, of calling for peace and amity and for co-existence shrinking to the point of being obliterated? Where is the academia in all of this? What about the intellectuals who are expected to provide leadership? In a democracy, striving for justice is an imperative.
Moderate voices represent the views of both parties in a conflict. Justice demands that we take a balanced view of a situation in order to arrive at solutions.
Give and take is the rule of life. Taking a stand on an issue by looking at a problem from the prism suggested by one group in the conflict, to the exclusion of others is bound to result in greater violence as the isolated parties are pushed to the extreme. This is the problem in Assam today. In a very covert manner, the larger community of non-Muslims seems to have ganged up against the ubiquitous Bangladeshi Muslim.
It is too simplistic a notion of an exceedingly complex problem.
(The writer can be contacted at email@example.com)