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We are responsible for the NE exodus, why blame Pakistan?

by G Pramod Kumar  Aug 21, 2012 15:55 IST

#Assam violence   #InMyOpinion   #NE exodus   #Pakistan  

Finally, Pakistan has come to the rescue of India for one more of its failures.

The government of super power India, which failed to prevent a situation that led to the flight-for-life of a large number of its own citizens from the southern states, had no other option but to find fault elsewhere. Who better fits the bill than Pakistan.

In all probability, perhaps Pakistan indeed had a role.

But, instead of blaming Pakistan, it would have made enormous political sense if our home minister and others had looked inwards and realised, if not confessed, that the problem was actually within. The SMS-provoked fleeing of thousands of panic-striken north-easterners from Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune, in fear of being attacked by Muslims, has only exposed the dangerous faultlines in our society.

Additionally, it also demonstrated yet again that despite sufficient early warning, our governments failed to act - either to foresee and prevent such an exodus or act once it happened. That the trickle of rumours as well as movement of people had started as early as 13 August shows how ineffective the State of India was in stopping it at least midway.

Members of an Assamese NGO burn a Pakistan flag. Reuters.

The trickle became a torrent right in front of their eyes and died down on its own in a week. Even without any action, it would have hit a plateau as in the case of an epidemic.

Instead of compelling Pakistan interior minster Rahman Mallick to repeat his inanities once again, home minister Shinde should have had the political statesmanship to blame these faultlines and our inability to respond to a crisis of this nature. He also should have expressed the resolve to commit that the government will learn from this experience.

Isn’t it a sad commentary on India and its inequalities that some mobile phone messages, irrespective of its origin, can drive thousands of people of certain racial profile into a panic-stricken flight?

Anyway, what are these faultlines that this shameful and weeklong event has exposed? And perhaps Pakistan has exploited?

That in India, its own people can be socially and politically marginalised and made to feel acutely insecure. That a silly rumour passed on through a mobile phone can amplify this sense of insecurity to such level that they flee for their life. Within their own country.

Their only reason for worry is that they are in a state or place that is away from their home-state. That they are linguistically and racially different at their place of work.

It doesn’t matter that they contribute enormously to the local economies of the states that they toil in. Neither does it matter that the gleaming buildings that we work and live in, and the metros that we ride in are built by them. They are in a constant state of flight-readiness; just a trigger is enough to send them filling trains that are meant to carry one tenth, or less, of the numbers that we saw flocking the train stations in the last few days.

This is a classic problem of migrants all over the world - but mostly overseas migrants. The International Organisation for Migration, Caram Asia, Migrants Forum and the UN have for long demonstrated their social alienation and vulnerabilities.

Migrants in alien lands are among the most vulnerable and insecure group of people and their access to everything, from food and shelter to healthcare, is highly hampered. Thousands of Indian men and women face it in the Middle East and it is a never ending problem of complaints, promises and treaties for the international community.

At the core of this vulnerability and a sub-human living is the political marginalisation of migrants in alien lands. Societies that benefit from them loath their presence and want to tell them that all the time so that they remain subjugated. It’s nothing less than homophobia.

But, when this situation happens within a country, it violates the country’s constitutional guarantees to its own citizens. And we are talking about the rights of about 30 per cent (more than 340 million people) of our population who are termed internal migrants by the 2001 census.

Other than the fundamental constitutional guarantee that an Indian can study, live and work anywhere of his/her choice within the country; there are strong legal provisions to protect migrants workers.

In fact, two pieces of legislation; The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) 1979, and The Buildings and Other Construction Workers Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) 1996; guarantee adequate protection and reasonable living conditions to the migrant workers, whether employed in industries, agriculture or construction.

The first Act is to regulate the working conditions of migrant workers and applies to any establishment that employs five or more inter-state workers. The Act makes registration of employees mandatory and strictly regulates the working conditions such as wages, allowances, equality and proper recording and maintenance of their employment details. It is illegal to employ workers without registration under the Act and the offenders can face punishment ranging from cancellation of licenses to prosecution.

The second Act is specifically meant for construction sites and applies to any establishment that employs ten or more workers. This Act also makes registration of the workers mandatory and stipulates a host of conditions for the “safety, health and welfare” of the employees. The conditions are so specific and include food, health facilities, drinking water, quality of accommodation, creche facilities and a lot of welfare measures.

However, what is missing grossly is the most crucial socio-political guarantees that they enjoy as citizens of India. Although labour ministers of the states often speak for the migrants’ rights as labourers, what is missing in the language is their socio-political rights as the citizens of the country.

This gap was glaringly visible during the recent exodus. While the contractors who brought them to the souther cities did precious nothing to reassure them and the local community remained indifferent, there were organised groups of people at the railway stations who in fact encouraged them to fee, right under the nose of the police. If there was at least a sense of political protection, they wouldn’t have felt insecure and fled. Instead, our politicians such as those famous ones in Maharashtra mostly make them feel unwanted and insecure.

Instead of running additional trains and deploying police to oversee their departure, what the central and state governments should have done was to reassure them and discourage them from leaving. Such a confidence-building measure would have been the best vaccine to their insecurity so that next time a miscreant spreads rumours, they would not take to their feet.

The second part of the story is the failure of the governments in prevention and reparative action.

Although the first signs of the rumour started a week ago, there was hardly any timely action from the central and state intelligence agencies. Perhaps they missed the signals or chose to ignore them. Either way, it is a huge gap that the enemies of the country and the trouble-makers in our society will take note of.

If the intelligence agencies had picked up the leads early, they could have used the same media form (SMS) and mass media to assure people not to be impressed by such rumours. They could have flooded out the miscreant messages. Assurances by political leaders, including tough words by the chief ministers, could have given them a sense of political protection.

The Mumbai incursion and terror-attacks exposed our porous coastline, lazy policing and terror-preparedness. Coastal patrolling and technology perhaps could plug the gaps to prevent another Mumbai attack. But the socio-political cracks that allowed for the scary SMS-rumour that went viral are deeper and more pervasive. They are much more dangerous too.

This was not the first time that we witnessed such an event. And unfortunately, this won’t be the last either. Every time we let it happen, it emboldens the culprits - both within and outside.

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