The year was 1988. Computers were still a novelty. Our school was considered cutting-edge to have a computer science lab with a bunch of BBC Micros and a couple of PCs. For teacher we had the man who had authored the ICSE prescribed textbook for the subject. So there was great excitement about the first computer science class. Then Brother Eric D’Souza walked in, wrote a sentence on the board, and said, “repeat after me”. The sentence was, “The computer is a stupid machine”.
Back in 1988 this line was surprising to us, but absolutely true. Even now, it remains largely true. The average computer is a stupid machine, because it only does what it is programmed to do. It does this by breaking everything down to the simplest of decisions: a yes or a no, black or white, 1 or 0, binary logic. It’s digital, though the real world at the human scale is analog. Now of course computers and their brood have taken over our lives and worlds. In the process, it seems, many people have become a bit more like them. They have become stupid machines.
Their reactions to all situations are perfectly predictable, based on the programmes – in the forms of ideology and culture – loaded in their heads. Their choices are very simple, reducible to black or white, 1 or 0. This can be in any area of life. For example, a debate about reading becomes a choice between Chetan Bhagat and James Joyce. The entire body of writing that spans the whole range in between is forgotten. Where does Gabriel Garcia Marquez fit in, in this scheme of things? Or JRR Tolkien? Or Rudyard Kipling? Or Calvin and Hobbes comics, for that matter?
Our media does not stand up and ask this rather obvious question. For the most part, folks on TV and commentators in newspapers mimic the exact same binary logic.
This would be merely sad and worrying if it was confined to opinions on fiction writing. It becomes downright deadly when the same sort of thinking is applied to make sense of tensions in Assam, for example. Most people react as programmed by their religions or ideologies. “Liberals” of the Teesta Setalvad kind come out with their Pavlovian responses which are actually communal in character. They side with the Muslims, right or wrong. The Hindu and Muslim Rights of course make no pretence at being anything but communal. They come out with their own entirely predictable vitriol directed against the “other”.
This has been the problem with the coverage on Assam and the incidents that followed.
BJP and its propagandists have raised their familiar scare of ongoing demographic invasion from Bangladesh threatening the local inhabitants. The other side has simply denied there is any illegal immigration from Bangladesh, and maintained that the Bodos were targeting Indian Muslims.
People who have probably never been to any place in Northeast India have written knowledgeably on it. The worst in my book have been the hypocrites: the kind of fakes who feel no shame in attacking others for doing what they themselves do less successfully. In doing this, these hypocrites have yet again displayed their low cunning and chutzpah, along with their ignorance.
The commentary by and large has been damaging, though the reportage in at least the major English channels and newspapers was honest. NDTV had two reporters on the ground from early on. At least one of them, Kishalay Bhattacharjee, who recently wrote an explainer in Outlook, knows the region very well. CNN IBN too is fortunate to have in Arijit Sen a correspondent in the region who is well-informed, thoughtful and intelligent. The local correspondents of the major English dailies are all people who know their beats intimately.
They were not the ones doing the commentary. In the beginning, that was left to experts in binary logic. Harsh Mander later wrote a thoughtful piece for The Hindu, which however was more flashback than current affairs. It was only on August 28, finally, that The Times of India published a piece of commentary that got to the roots of the matter. The article, written by former Assam home secretary MP Bezbaruah, is recommended reading.
The initial reduction to binary was unfortunate, because the issue is a complex and explosive one and cannot be explained in a single yes/no statement.
Is there illegal immigration from Bangladesh? Yes, there is. But no one really knows the numbers. However, the vast majority of Bengali Muslims are doubtless Indians. The major waves of immigration from what is now-Bangladesh to India in 1947 and 1971 have been of Hindus, not Muslims. But it is also true that there has long been a trickle of economic migrants out from East Bengal.
Is the fight between Bodos and Muslims a religious or ethnic one? The truthful answer again is, a bit of both. However, as the Asian Centre for Human Rights has pointed out, it’s certainly not a Hindu-Muslim conflict, because around 15 per cent of Bodos are Christians, and close to 50 per cent follow their traditional animist faith called Bathou. The Bodos have, since the 1980s, been highly intolerant of all other ethnic groups in areas they consider theirs.
So what would be the right thing to do for Indians who are not biased by communal or ethnic considerations? It would be to ensure that the laws of this country are followed by all without fear or favour. That is the true secular position, and also the true nationalist position, because it is in the best interests of the country. Any other route is unjust and will lead to further bloodshed.
We are a country with laws regarding immigration and citizenship. If anyone is violating those laws they ought to be punished regardless of whether they are Bangladeshis or Brazilians. It is not a communal issue. It is a citizenship issue.
Similarly, if anyone is rioting in Kokrajhar or Mumbai or Mysore, they ought to be punished in accordance with law, regardless of whether they are Bodo or Bengali.
The difficulty is not in deciding what is right. It is in doing it, because our administration and justice systems are weak, inefficient and often corrupt. The solution lies in fixing them. That is long, hard and boring work so no one talks about it. Everyone just wants to go and outrage on Twitter and TV channels and be done with it.
Our problems are compounded by political players who fish for votes in troubled waters, and clever propagandists and pompous fools who uncritically broadcast their views. When these people start playing with emotions and issues that can ruin the lives of lakhs, they need to be called out for the liars and fakes they really are.
The views expressed by the author are personal and do not express those of any organisation.