Diana Jue-Rajasingh

The NE Exodus from Bangalore, Citizenship, and Identity

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on August 20, 2012

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A few days ago, I posted this photo of the Deccan Herald’s front page on my Tumblr. The photo depicted the “mass exodus” of Indian Northeasterners from Bangalore. The large-scale migration was due to alleged rumors of attacks on Northeasterners that would occur after the end of Ramzan, which is today. These attacks were supposed to avenge an attack on Muslims in Assam, a Northeastern state.

I’ve been following the story for the past couple of days and have chatted with locals about the situation (it’s a personal interest because so many people have told me that I can pass as a Northeasterner, and definitely, the looks coming my way have noticeably increased). Bangalore’s local police force has identified individuals who spread the rumors by mass SMS, and evidently 17,000 security personnel have been deployed throughout the city. There has also been a cap on SMS-sending to stop the continual spread of communal fear (although I appreciate the measures of precaution, it’s kind of a hassle for me). The city itself has suffered from the loss of low-cost migrant laborers, who took up whatever menial jobs the city had to offer: restaurant waiters and cooks, beauty salon stylists, security guards, and drivers. The Northeasterners are most analogous to Mexican immigrants in the US, except they’re considered nationals — in name, at least. Anyway, it’s almost like the movie, A Day Without a Mexican, but in real life.

Although the hype has simmered down considerably, and outward migration has evidently slowed to a trickle, the entire ordeal has uncovered problems underlying the ideal of Indian citizenship. My homestay grandpa showed me an article in today’s Hindu, which is probably the only English-written Indian newspaper you should be getting your news from. Here is a telling quotation from author Dolly Kikon:

Political parties and administrators underlined the ideals of citizenship, equality, and security to remind those packing their bags to reconsider their decision. But the exodus reveals how people are often weary of citizenship ideals and do not trust the state with their lives. The moral of the story: there are multiple visions of Indian citizenship, and the state’s promises to protect and secure citizens have remained an illusion for the majority of the people who are often swept under the grand narrative of citizenship and equality. Perhaps it was the objective thing to board the trains and go back to the northeast for several thousand workers and students — objectivity here understood as the ability to experience the world through one’s specific embodiment and situated knowledge.

Foreigners to India often rave about the nation’s tolerance, but the locals I know – many of whom are minorities by ethnicity or by religion or by caste – say otherwise. Northeasterners, who look different and worship differently, are leaving the big cities because they don’t feel safe in their own nation or protected by their own government. I can’t blame them for feeling that way, either. I’m definitely not an expert on national policy in the Northeast, but it seems that the government does little to involve itself with the increased hostility, ethnic conflict due to illegal immigration from neighboring states (a possible cause of the Assam riots and this entire security fiasco), and militarization of the region. At the state level, Karnataka’s government might not involve itself in conflicts that arise local between non-Hindu groups because it’s BJP-led (BJP has roots in the RSS, who are known to be Hindu nationalists; Northeasterners are predominately Christian). Again, Kikon sums it up:

The citizens from northeast India, including those thousands who left the beautiful cosmopolitan cities overnight, have long erased from their minds the illusion that all Indian citizens are equal before the law and are therefore guaranteed equal rights. Instead, they seek to understand how such inequalities have been sustained, validated and legitimised by the Indian state for more than half a century.

In the end, people are fending for themselves. The main issue has to do with identity, which is always kept close to home. This is something I’ve been realizing more and more in India. People here identity themselves as part of a family first and move outward. State/language and religion might be the next means of identification. National identity is weak, as demonstrated by last week’s Independence Day. In America, the nation is red-white-and-blue’d for July 4. But on August 15, the national orange, white, and green are not to be seen. I’ve been told that one reason for this is because it’s easy to be penalized for wearing/presenting colors in the wrong way. If it’s so hard to act patriotic without getting in trouble, then why even attempt it? Also, ask an American abroad where he/she is from, and he/she will probably answer, “The US” or “I’m American.” But ask an Indian abroad the same question, and he/she will probably reply with “Bangalore” or “I’m Bengali.” There are just so many ways to divide people here, and people do it willingly, even though they live under the banner of India. I think it was Shashi Tharoor who wrote that India is more of a thali than a melting pot.

Obviously, there are consequences of keeping identities more local than national. They manifest at the communal level (Northeasterners fleeing cities) and also on the individual level. When they happen at the individual level among people who can affect the communal level, well, then you have political problems. And that’s one reason why politics, public administration, and public policy in India are so messy. People are looking out for their own instead of the best interests of the nation. For the “common good” to be achieved, there needs to be a shift of identity away from the personal and toward something [much] larger.

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