The remote has become a neighbour
Column by M.J. Akbar
Technology has liberated prejudice and its consequence, rumour, from accountability. When the village was still a mere village, and had not gone global, prejudice had a face and a name. This did not always ameliorate its poisonous warts. Elites took pride in prejudice, and concocted virulent theories to justify inhumanity. They were not content to celebrate their luck; they claimed “superiority” through genes or wealth.
Prejudice has been a traditional basis for social stability and power: go no further than the Indian caste system, which condemned the bottom third of the population to perpetual slavery. It was so useful that it stuck to attitudes even among those who converted to Islam, a religion that affords every individual the dignity of equality before God.
As Elias Canetti has argued so persuasively in his seminal work, Crowds and Power, prejudice transforms itself in the collective. Individuals shed guilt in the stupor of a brute mob, as if the presence of others is an exoneration. The individual escapes the circle of moral restraint, finds cover in anonymity and begins to believe that collective crime is beyond punishment. And so often it; when there are too many who are guilty, no one is guilty. A crowd is volatile and electric. This does not make it necessarily negative. The pleasure of watching a game is multiplied by the company of a packed stadium. Religious rites are at their best when congregational. But when mass instinct is fuelled by aggression it trends easily towards barbarism.
Now that the microchip and its productive child, the mobile phone, have turned the world into a global village, a crowd does not even need a physical dimension. You can belong to one in the loneliness of a student dormitory. This paradox is perfect breeding ground for that most fertile source of aggression, fear. Panic is the alter ego of aggression.
Since we recognise ourselves in the other, since we know that there is a deep subconscious human instinct that can turn a placid, timid neighbour next door into a ravenous beast, if only while the horrific spell lasts, trust disappears during panic. Imagination becomes fertile. From an epicentre in Assam, crosscurrents of violence and fear have infected diverse cities across India. They are also propelled by that dangerous cousin of ignorance, the stereotype.
If there is one word that describes the attitude of most Indians towards our North East it is “remote”. Delhi’s oligarchs are, predictably, the worst offenders, but they are not alone. Delhi treats the North East as a psychological suburb. The liberal makes the occasional detour as a tourist into exotica, driven either by the lure of the rhino wrestling in the marshes of Kaziranga or, if you happen to be Prime Minister without a Parliament seat, the welcome possibility of a Rajya Sabha seat, which demands in return nothing more than token gestures. Most Indians are indifferent: geographically, it is literally beyond another country, Bangladesh, connected by a sliver of land as defenceless as a chicken’s neck. The physical features of the people are different, because ethnicity has already begun to shift further east. But while no one is troubled by the fact that many Punjabis in North West India happily resemble the physique of people in Afghanistan and Central Asia, as indeed would befit the genes on either side of the Indus, the North East is still another land.
One would imagine that attitudes would mellow now that the brilliantly enterprising young men and women of the North East have sought and got jobs on alongside the “mainstream”. But proximity has not yet weakened prejudice. Instead, there has been a belligerent sexist variation: the natural beauty of North Eastern women has added a sexual component to latent aggression. Tensions in the air have thickened.
The confrontation between immigrant Muslims and local populations in Assam is rooted in land and economic productivity. A clash between two stereotypes has turned it into a pan-Indian pandemic. Violence has been a feature of relations between Hindus and Muslims thanks to the troubled politics of the last hundred years, long enough to create mental and physical chasms. Small sections of Muslims, led by men who have learnt that there are tremendous rewards in the perpetuation of fear and isolation, feed the narrative of violence by periodic displays of stupid malevolence, as for instance during the recent demonstration at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. You can count the immediate victims of that day on your fingers; but millions more were wounded across India in some corner of the psyche. Nothing will happen to the authors of the Mumbai demonstration. An establishment that feeds on their votes will protect them.
But there is something positive in this story; maybe it needs a crisis to make the obvious visible. Young people from the North East now live wherever economic opportunity invites them. They are integrating into the rest of India in the best way, through its economic sinews. The remote has become a neighbour. Any nation is a work in progress, and this is progress.