Thomas Jefferson, writing about the furor over slavery that led to the Missouri Compromise, likened it to “a fire bell in the night” warning of grave trouble ahead for the Union. That is what the panic of northeastern Indians in cities like Bangalore and Chennai is for India: it reminds the country of the powder keg in the basement—communal tensions.
The New York Times has a good write-up:
A swirl of unfounded rumors, spread by text messages and social media, had warned of attacks by Muslims against northeastern migrants, prompting the panic and the exodus. Indian leaders, deeply alarmed, have pleaded for calm, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared in Parliament on Friday to denounce the rumor mongering and offer reassurance to northeastern migrants.
“What is at stake is the unity and integrity of our country,” Mr. Singh said. “What is at stake is communal harmony.”
The hysteria in several of the country’s most advanced urban centers has underscored the deep roots of ethnic tensions in India, where communal conflict is usually simplified as Hindu versus Muslim, yet is often far more complex. For decades, Indian leaders have mostly managed to isolate and triangulate regional ethnic conflicts, if not always resolve them, but the public panic this week is a testament to how the old strategies may be less effective in an information age.
The role technology seems to be playing in this is notable. And it suggests that as the average Indian standard of living rises and people gain access to a level of connectivity previously reserved for only the best off, these kinds of problems might become more pronounced rather than less.
Pakistani groups could be exploiting this already. Indian officials have blamed Pakistani websites for being the source of many of these viral rumors:
Home Secretary R.K. Singh told reporters late Saturday that investigators had found that most of the websites used images of people killed in cyclones and earthquakes and passed them off as Muslims killed in violence earlier this year to spread fear of revenge attacks. He said most of the images were uploaded from Pakistan. The sites have now been blocked.
Via Meadia has been following the story for a while now, and we’ll continue covering it as it develops.