November 27, 2007Public PolicySecurity

The entitlement economy bites (Assam edition)

The descendents of tea estate workers—transported to Assam from Bihar and Jharkhand by the British—engage in public protests in Guwahati. They want, you guessed it, to be classified as scheduled tribes (STs) so that they too can receive the benefits of reservations. But the citizens of Guwahati, largely ethnic Assamese, resent this disruption to their daily life and business. The state government is unable or unwilling to ensure the maintenance of law and order. One woman protester is molested, disrobed and beaten by men, one of whom had his fast-food stall destroyed by the protesters. There’s a national outcry over the manner the poor tribal woman was treated.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

What a bloody mess!

But also, how unsurprising. Thanks to the general remoteness’ of the North East and the propensity of the players to cast the ethnic conflicts of the region in secessionist/separatist terms, there has been a tendency to ignore the enthic chauvinism that underpins much of the politics and violence. Just look at the names of the political student’s movements in Assam alone: you have everything from the All-Assam Students’ Union, to the All-Bodo Student’s Union to the All-Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam to the All-Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATSA). They have diverse political goals and levels of organisation. But they are all organised along ethnic lines. Traditional ethnic tensios and post-Mandal politics easily edge these organisations into pursuing the most parochial of agenda.

And when you introduce the politics of entitlement into this mix of ethnic politics, you should not be surprised that you’ll see clashes between those who stand to make relative gains and those who stand to suffer relative losses. That they will resort to violence is also a given: because violence grabs attention—not least of the television news channels. And also because such violence is hardly ever punished. The Gujjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab earlier this year point to a new threat to domestic stability. Unlike jihadi terrorism, this one is entirely home-grown. It is naive to believe that the law enforcement machineries of even the most well-governed states can cope with a descent to large-scale mob violence of this nature.

As long as the entitlement economy creates incentives for ethnic/caste mobilisation political violence of this nature is only to be expected. The good citizens of the country—outraged by how one woman’s modesty was outraged—need to ask why these ethnic-caste conflicts are getting more frequent and more violent?

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