Uneasy lives of northeast migrants

Dim Sian Niang has been living in Bangalore, Karnataka, for the last eight years. She came here from Manipur to pursue her higher studies and then decided to stay on in the beautiful garden city after she secured a lucrative job as a merchandiser with a multi-national company. Life had been chugging along just fine for her and her siblings – they all live together in a rented accommodation in the Lingarajpura locality – until violent clashes broke out between the Bodos and the Bangla-speaking Muslims in certain districts of Assam in mid-July. 
The effects of that conflict have been felt all across India, with northeast migrant communities in major metros hastily making their way back to their home states by the train-loads, leaving behind their homes and jobs. This mass exodus was triggered after random threats of attacks were circulated through the social networking sites and SMSs on mobile phones.
It all started when reports of attacks on Northeast students and professionals in Kondwa, Pune, made it to the front pages of the newspapers in mid-August. This was followed by other sporadic incidents in which more than 10 students were targeted. According to Rock Lungleng, Convener of the Forum for Northeast Students in Pune, in the days after those initial incidents many northeastern people were followed or attacked on the streets, while some were called out from their rented rooms or homes and beaten up. “We lodged FIRs at different police stations and ever since then we have been appealing for calm. We want to deal with the matter in the most peaceful way,” he says.
In an effort to handle the situation, Pune-based student leaders sent out advisories via SMS and Internet asking students to avoid venturing out alone after 7 pm or to move in groups.
Unfortunately, the threats and rumours made their way to Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai via SMS and Facebook. Messages threatening Northeast migrants to “leave before the 20th” started appearing in their email and phone in-boxes. Appeals and assurances of safety by the Karnataka government notwithstanding, people from Northeast started fleeing the state in hordes – as per official estimates Bangalore has a sizeable Northeastern population of 2.5 lakh to 2.75 lakh.
Although Niang didn’t receive any such message, she decided to stay put in the city, although the feeling of uneasiness never left her. “My colleagues and friends have told me not to worry and have assured me of their help in case I face any problem, yet I feel vulnerable,” she says.

It’s to lay to rest fears of girls like Niang that student activist and management graduate, Monika, has been trying to bring together community leaders and student groups from the Northeast and other communities to interact with each other and “clear the air”. “We have also held several interactions with the state authorities and security agencies,” she says.

Bangalore’s Director General of Police Lalrokhuma Pachau, who is himself from the Northeast, insists that no incidents of violence were reported in the city. But Monika believes that this is because not many would have had the nerve to file complaints, given the state of panic they were in. “While the police should understand this situation, on our part we have been appealing to the community to report any incident to their respective student or community leaders so that it’s on record,” she elaborates.

Of course, amidst all this fear and panic, there are a few resilient voices from within the community that are using this recent crisis to highlight the discrimination and neglect that migrants from the Northeast, particularly young women, face on an on-going basis. Some of them are also looking ahead to ways in which such incidents can be contained in the future.

Dr. Rini Ralte, a professor at United Theological College, Bangalore, is one of them. A resident of Bangalore for the last 20 years, this Mizo woman is actively coordinating interactions between the local people and Northeast representatives. 

Besides this, she and her team are lending support to girls who have not fled the city but are holed up in their homes fearing violence if they move around openly. “After one such rescue operation, a girl told me it was the first time she came out to see sunshine in seven days,” she says.
For Ralte this “crisis is an opportunity to set many things right”. 

According to her, on a daily basis, young Northeast boys and girls face serious problems that range from demands for higher room rents to harassment and abuse in the workplace to random racial attacks and discrimination. “If in the course of our increased inter-community interactions we can help sort out certain issues and misconceptions, it will greatly help in the future,” she adds.

Things may not be so pleasant right now but Niang feels that once the threat perception comes down, people will definitely start returning, simply because there are limited employment and education options back home.

But Dr Monisha Behal, the founder member and Chairperson of North East Network (NEN), is concerned about the fate of those who are employed in the labour or service industries. “What will happen to those who left suddenly without informing the management, or those who are on contract?” she wonders, adding, “I think now there is a need to adopt a positive attitude. We must be aware and assert our legal rights enshrined in the Constitution and the Indian Penal Code. 

This will generate confidence among the community.”
Meanwhile, Namrata Goswami, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, Delhi, believes that the government can play a more effective role in controlling such incidents. She asserts that the viable response of the state to this kind of violence is for the Union Home Minister and Home Secretary to come on national television to ensure everybody that “rumours” or “misleading information” are being duly countered. 

According to the researcher-analyst, another way the state can respond is by increasing police presence in the areas prone to such violence. “The policing must be visible,” she says.

These appear to be bizarre times for the people of the Northeast. It’s been more than a month since violence first broke out between the Bodos and the Muslim minority community in Assam, resulting in the killing of nearly 75 people. 

The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTAD) districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, and Udalguri, as well as the neighbouring district of Dhubri, continue to remain tense with nearly 400,000 people displaced, and forced to take shelter in 300 or more relief camps.

The big question on everybody’s mind is this: How can we ensure that such tragic and deplorable developments never occur again? 

women feature service
 August - September 2012

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