Assam: Competitive Religiosity and Media Narrative
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What essentially started as yet another episodic violence between largely Hindu Bodo tribes and predominantly Bangla Muslim peasantry in couple of districts of Assam (part of a long standing conflict rooted in complex socio-economic milieu) is now threatening to metamorphose in to a pan Indian strife reviving festering communal faultlines.

Even as the tension in Assam is slowly showing signs of subsiding, the Ummahood lost no time in mobilizing and outraging over the perceived injustice to their fellow co-religionists. Leading from the front in manufacturing victimhood and conjuring up imaginary grievance is the articulate Hyderabad MP Asasuddin Owaisi, reverentially addressed as Owaisi Saab by fawning media talking heads of Delhi TV channels and a hugely sought after figure in think tank seminar circuit.

Adding further to the arsenal of incendiary Islamist propaganda were  doctored images of Burmese Buddhists allegedly unleashing terror on Rohingya Muslims. The outcome was so predictable – conflagration in an Islamist congregation, this time in the heart of Mumbai. Rioting rageboys held the city to ransom. In what was clearly an orchestrated act of hooliganism, they desecrated martyrdom symbols erected in memory of slain soldiers, molested lady cops and perhaps consumed by irrational anger attacked even their all-weather friends, the liberal media.

Just when one thought that their collective anger had potentially dissipated in the madness manifested in Mumbai, what followed was even more repulsive. Goons, all belonging to a certain religious persuasion, unleashed physical attacks on hapless students from Northeast in Pune, a bustling metropolis known for its vibrant educational institutions. They have all been since identified by cops and thankfully arrested as well. Mainstream media also reported instances of Bodos in Hyderabad being targeted and ‘threatened’ to leave the city or face dire consequences

Frenzied fallout of all this was panic spreading to other cities, with rumors flying thick and fast of Northeastners being ethnically targeted by rampaging mobs in retaliatory violence to Assam happenings. Exacerbating the situation was a potent combination of technology enabled rumor mongering, distress calls by perturbed family members, and irresponsible cum speculative variety of reportage practiced by national and regional media. What initially was dismissed as rumors crystalized in to reality. Atleast 3-4 cities witnessed massive outflow of migrant students and worker. Any conscientious citizen would have been distraught seeing visuals of fear stricken Northeasterners boarding teeming trains.

All this set the stage for competitive religiosity with Sangh too now jumping in to the fray. It’s clear that Sangh and its affiliated organizations are trying their best to build a ‘Hindu’ narrative in to the Assam issue by smartly deploying a disappointingly reductionist communal discourse but compensating for it through running of relief camps in troubled areas. And now it’s mounting a genuine outreach effort in various cities, seeking to dissuade the panic stricken Northeast workers and students from going back to their native domicile.

Unless one is a sinister minded editor of a certain Chennai based communist mouthpiece or the type who views the entire universe as a vast right-wing conspiracy, it’s clear that it was a surge of simple-minded, uncomplicated patriotism that drove boisterous Sangh activists to work round the clock in railway stations and allay the apprehensions and provide a sincere healing touch to Northeasterners.

Has Sangh overplayed “We will protect our Northeastern brethren come what may” card? Did they use this exodus episode as an opportunity to exhibit that they are only organization capable of demonstrable ground level acts of patriotism? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Uncharacteristically excessive communication from Sangh functionaries and overkill on social media could have been a contributory factor in building the perception that Sangh using the unfortunate turn of events to score propaganda points and reinforce its ultra-patriotic credentials.

May be the RSS was attempting to differentiate itself from far right fringe outfits like the abominable Ram Sene, who were recently reported to have attempted to foment riots by scapegoating Muslims through stage-managed antics (hoisting the Pakistan flag)

Sangh for long has been accused by the Nehruvian left-liberal commentariat of nurturing a restrictive conception of monoculture nationhood rooted in a ‘Hindi-Hindu’ framework. So it’s likely Sangh saw the recent ethnic conflict has a means to demonstrate that it engagement with Hindu issues is not restricted by geographic imagination or ethnicity biases.

When the violence was raging in Assam, establishment media sought to be sweep under the carpet, facets of riots that did not fit in to conventional narrative pattern. When the skewed nature of media discourse and establishment intelligentsia’s attempt to obfuscate the issue by resorting to terminological sophistry came under relentless scrutiny, especially in the social media, leading vanguards of media provided a host of reasons that ranged from the sublime ones to the ridiculous. So we heard it all- from “tyranny of distance” to “Please don’t politicize. It’s a complex cauldron of polyethnicities” to “Its not communal but ethnic, stupid”.

However what this perverted sense of political correctness unwittingly caused was linking up Bodo issue with a larger emerging nationalist consciousness. What the Assam riots managed to do, much to chagrin of secular chatterati, was creating an emotional bond between mainland India and northeast India.

Realizing the ramifications of Bodo plight striking an emotional resonance with rest of India on a ‘Hindu’ platform, establishment media quickly shifted gears. From op-eds suggesting that illegal migration as imaginary right wing propaganda to deliberate attempts to obfuscate by highlighting other unrelated undercurrents to even brazen claims of Bodo Belligerence as root cause of all troubles, establishment media was desperate to ensure UPA does not have to pay a political price for its enormous failures. Lost in this deliberate attempts to prevaricate was the fact that it was Congress party  that has played ugly on all sides of ethnic /communal divides purely for electoral consideration. Naked Political partisanship of media was never so evident.

What did come as a shock to even to a critic of Sangh like me was how the entire media focus was smartly moved away from causes of rioting  in Assam, Islamist hooliganism in Mumbai and other parts of India, actual incidents of physical violence against Northeasterners to completely tangential issues like role of social media. Also contrast the escalated coverage over the ‘exodus’ in Bangalore with near muted focus on cities in which attacks actually happened and triggered this unfortunate turn of events .  Another pattern emerging in media narrative is 2 theology professors slowly morphing as voice of all ‘Northeasterners’ in Bangalore. Its no suprise that one of them is already spewing “all religious minorities are aggrieved” line in his interventions. And its  also no coincidence that a Bangalore based activist is being investigated for spreading the rumours. We will wait for the final investigation to connect these seemingly unrelated dots

Its clear that key issue that is sought to be obscured in the entire debate is how a localized eruption in Assam quickly found violent reverberations in in Maharashtra, in Jharkhand, in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. And as we write this, Islamists are on the rampage in heart of Lucknow and have allegedely attacked a Buddha statue.

With the likes of Maulana Badruddin Ajmal of AUDF and Asasuddin Owaisi clearly emerging as the leaders of Islamic community, the moderate Muslim voice, which used to be well represented in the oped pages of newspaperss, has also made a complete disappearing act .

And we conclude by quoting Shri KPS Gill “Above all, the corrupt politics of vote banks and crass electoral calculi, to the manifest detriment of the national interest, must be defeated. India’s diversity can only be held together by the unity of law and of justice, not by the unprincipled horse-trading that governs politics today’

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