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Twin tragedies, and the respect for life and the law

Two sets of tragedies dominate headlines, both in our region and in other parts of India. And both are related, unfortunately, to the North-east. The first relate to the tragic deaths in quick succession of a young student from Meghalaya in the Delhi region at a private university and of an architecture student in Bangalore from Manipur which has generated a burst of electronic and print media coverage, as well as in the ‘new’ media and social networking sites.

Demonstrations and campaigns through media are extremely visible as well as the voices of the politically powerful such as Meghalaya’s Chief Minister, Mukul Sangma, whose niece hanged herself in the incident at Amity University after being accused of cheating.

The second event, which has flashed across media, has been the ferry disaster in Dhubri district when a cyclone ripped across the Brahmaputra, slamming into and toppling a crowded passenger boat as it approached the south bank of the Brahmaputra on a journey between Dhubri and Hatsinghimari/Fakirganj. The toll is said to be not less than 100, and is one of the worst boat disasters in Assam in some years – one can recall the capsizing of a large vessel near Guwahati about a decade back carrying pilgrims on the Chait puja.

Again, over 100 too perished then and there were calls for rigorous implementation of safety measures, placing life saving equipment on board and rescue procedures. But that hul-chul or hulostul lasted for a few days before the mandatory inquiry took over and all interest, both public and media, was lost, not to speak of Government, and life returned to the Business as Usual syndrome.

One could argue that the tragedies on the Indian mainland, which smack of racial bias, stereotyping and acute discrimination, are completely different to the disaster on the Brahmaputra. That is substantially so – but there are crucial common elements which deserve close and critical scrutiny. We will come to these a little later, but first let us look at the phenomenon of racial profiling that appears to have become the norm in Delhi especially.

Most of us from the region have had a taste of it; those with features which resemble the normative “look” of an Indian may not have felt discrimination’s sting and humiliation but have heard other comments such as, “Oh, but you don’t look like the North-easterner!” I mean – what is an Indian supposed to look like? Perhaps, we should start calling ourselves Indians of North-eastern Origin (INEO).

As the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Lalthanhawla, mentioned at a business meeting in New Delhi years back: is an Indian supposed to sport a turban, wear a dhoti or a kurta? He along with at least one other chief minister of the region had been asked to show their passports when they were checking into a hotel elsewhere in the country. If that kind of ignorance and discrimination takes place at that level, what chance do poor students and professionals have, especially women who are so much more vulnerable. In fact most cases of molestation of women and harassment go unreported despite the fact that there is a North East Helpline, which is extremely active and engaged in these issues in Delhi. Despite having won a long battle to get some reflection – or just mention — of the diversity and history of the region in school textbooks across the “mainland”, we find that even today, despite the growth of education and knowledge, stereotyping and prejudice is rampant particularly in metros like Delhi and its surrounding environments, seeping viciously across their semi-urban, semi-rural sprawls and elsewhere in Northern India.

The tragedy of Robert in Bangalore was unexpected because such incidents in that city and elsewhere in Southern metros have been rarely reported. The apparent subsequent cover-up by students, hostellers, college officials and lethargy of the policy was not something that one had come to expect in Southern India, known for better governance performance levels than most parts of the country. This shows one reality: prejudice has no borders.

But neither does its counterpart, tolerance and respect. One way to deal with offensive behaviour and obnoxious characters is to ensure that they are first punished strongly, even fiercely, so that they swiftly face prosecution, feel the sting of the law for offences against disadvantaged groups, go to jail and pay huge fines which should be a dissuader. That will inculcate a respect for the law and its enforcement, and eventually for the victim or protagonist. The second is a non-stop campaign by civil society groups, educational institutions at all levels of schools, colleges and universities, rights groups, through training to civil servants and police, army and security forces, professionals and workers in the organized and unorganized sector, to panchayats and municipal bodies and media organizations on rights, equality and respect.

It is not surprising that attacks on those from the North-east take place in urban centres where new money has swamped semi-rural communities and in settings where “traditions” exist in which families and communities justify the murder of lovers in the name of some warped illusion of “justice” because they have defied convention, are from different castes or elope; or where babies are aborted just because they happen to be female.

Now let’s inverse the situation: what would have been the reaction if incidents involving Dana and Richard had happened to anyone from the rest of India in the North-east? In fact, it could be argued that this has been happening with threats to outsiders from other parts of India to leave states, with efforts at pushing out those who are not of a particular tribe or community in a geographical area? Forget about ‘outsiders: aren’t we doing it to our own people: just think about the lakhs languishing for years in “relief” camps in Tripura and Assam because they can’t go home? Out of sight, out of mind. We have such convenient memories.

We need to be brutally honest about ourselves instead of pointing the finger at others all the time: how do we treat each other in the North-east: there are road blockades for weeks during which lakhs suffer; tribals and non-tribals collide in different states; bandh calls have become so infuriating that someone has written an Assamese song scorning this new instrument of oppression. An overdose of bandhs is not democratic dissent –beyond a point, it is simply intimidation.

We suffer double discrimination — outside and inside the region. In addition, there is the institutionalized discrimination in the existence of draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other such oppressive laws that make victims of ordinary people and protect those who intimidate, abuse and even kill. Those armed groups who do the same without fear of prosecution are no better.

Let me return to the ferry tragedy: what’s the connection between that and discrimination? Simple: it is respect for law and rules and the safety of those who depend on institutions. Are the Assam Government and its Inland Water Transport Dept enforcing the laws: are they ensuring that private operators follow rules such as carrying enough life jackets, that the district administration and state government have enough rescue vessels and quick evacuation boats? Is the safety of vessels being regulated and regularly reviewed? Those that don’t qualify should not be allowed to ply.

Action should be taken against those who have neglected their duties as officials and their responsibilities as private transporters. Medical personnel need to be on board the big vessels or nearby to rush with assistance. A decade ago, the Brahmaputra was named National Waterway No. 2 with much fanfare. Nothing has happened since. No night navigation, no proper ghats or ports, no dredging, no safety on most of the boats, which ply. The situation is scandalous and requires a review mechanism that regularly conducts safety audits if the chalta hai attitude is to be changed.

Finally, why is the Prime Minister, elected from Assam to the Rajya Sabha, so silent? He should have reached out to the families of the bereaved. He has failed to do so and that is another tragedy — for someone who is the highest elected official in our country and selected from Assam.

By the Brahmaputra / By Sanjoy Hazarika

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