Northeast lessons from the exodus

By HH Mohrmen

While the homeward bound exodus of north-easterners was at its peak and workers from the region and the students particular headed home out of fear of the backlash against what was going on in Assam, we decided to do the opposite (although not quite a reverse exodus) and travel to Gujarat for my daughter’s admission in one of the cities in that state. The decision to travel was a cause of worry for our relatives in spite of the fact that Gujarat is in the west and there was no report of any threat or intimidation against the north easterners in that state. But that did not stop our near and dear ones from trying to speak sense to us and help us realize that for our own good we should postpone the trip. Although the problem originated only in the southern part of the country we were advised to postpone our trip till the problem subsided. But we stuck to our plans and travelled to Ahmedabad but before that I did my own little research by meeting ex-students from Gujarat and people who had lived and worked there. Everyone encouraged me to go ahead with my plan and assured me that Gujaratis are good people. I called people who live in Gujarat and asked if there is any threat to visitors from the east and the answer was in the negative so we continued with the journey.

The dust has finally settled and all fingers are now pointed at the internet; social media network sites were blamed for the exodus of the people of north eastern origin from this area. It is true the internet has given us freedom beyond our imagination, but it is only natural that there will be people who will abuse their freedom and use it to serve their own vested interests. But whatever may have happened censorship is not the answer to the problem. In fact no matter how much efforts the government puts in trying to censor the net, anti social elements will always find a way to skirt around and accomplish their evil designs.

The freedom that the internet allows sometime causes embarrassment too when one posts wrong information. During the recent 2012 Olympics, Amitabh Bacchan tweeted to appreciate Mary Kom’s achievement. The problem is that Bachhan did not know that Mary Kom is from Manipur so he said she is from Assam. The tweet was shared on facebook and facebookers were astounded by senior Bachhan’s ignorance of the geography of the country.

If censorship is not the answer what is to be done to make sure that false propaganda and disinformation does not finds it ways to the internet? If we are to learn any lessons from the recent imbroglio it is this that NOT all information shared or posted on the internet are true. There are unscrupulous elements on the prowl in the internet too and we must be careful with that kind of information. At the individual level, the mantra for all the internet users is to be very careful and exercise absolute self restraint before commenting, sharing or even liking the posts. Users should not get carried over by emotion, for the very reason that devious elements are targeting users’ emotion to drive home their point. Internet users should be very cautious in dealing with the content of a webpage, a blog, a tweet and even a facebook post. The recent exodus of north-easterners was obviously caused by people with evil intention who used pictures with mischievous content to play with people’s emotion. Internet users should be sensible and ignore page or pages with malicious contents, and to think twice before acting on such internet content.

Some say that people are like flies; they thrive on filth. It is the wrong post or bad pages which always have the strongest effects on people. Spiteful posts, offensive videos, posts or blogs always go viral the moment they are put on the internet. But kind and good content does not always get the same kind of attention. The recent exodus is again the best example. The pictures of people carrying their luggage on the railway platform went viral while a photo of a young Muslim in his Islamic attire (probably on the same platform) holding a placard which says “Please do not leave” has only a few shares. In short, the problem escalated because people were not able to separate facts from rumours. When we have a platform like internet which allows us unlimited freedom to share our thoughts, photographs and even opinions, it is our responsibility to exercise absolute restraint. Internet gives us the freedom of thoughts and expressions that the generation before us did not have, but we must use it with utmost responsibility.

The government too instead of censoring the net should in fact try to make its presence in the cyber space more robust by strengthening its cyber intelligence. If the cyber intelligence is active, the government would have been able to prevent the exodus by checking the websites or facebook which carried these hateful messages. The answer is to increase and strengthen intelligence presence in the net and not censor. This will enable the government to check and monitor odious content in the net and prevent any untoward incidents.

But beyond the cloud there is always a silver lining. The incident of the mass exodus of young north-easterners was reported in almost every newspaper worth its salt. The story was carried by every print and electronic media in the country and even abroad. The outcome of the mass movement of people has indirectly found mention even in the White House briefing when India was asked to be cautious on how it deals with the issue of censoring the net. All of sudden the region found mention in the media and there is a rush to learn more and understand about the region. On August 21, the Ahmedabad Mirror came up with a brilliant idea of publishing a quiz on the north east, which challenged its readers on how much they know about the region. There were write -ups in several newspaper about the region and the people who live in it and in many cases by the people from the northeast.

A story of the London Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom’s consideration to settle in Bangalore which says “Think Northeast: Promoting Sports could bridge the gap between the region and the rest of India” was part of the August 24 editorial of the Times of India Ahmedabad edition. Who would ever think that Mary Kom’s mere consideration to settle in Bangalore would find space in the TOI’s Ahmedabad edition?

An optimistic view of things would help us learn than complain and curse against what had happened. Every ying has its yang too; the good and the bad of it. First it brought to light the in-fighting within the Congress party when the views of the President differed from that of the Government; the party and the government spoke in two different voices on a single issue. But the most important thing is for the people of the region to learn from what had happened. We need to be more cautious in dealing with the content in the internet and to be able to separate the shaft from the rice. We need to be more mature in our treatment of internet content and act responsibly in whatever we do and to refrain from hiding ourselves behind a fake identity; we should in fact avoid having to do anything on the internet with a person who uses a pseudonym or fake identity. Freedom is personal so it should also start and end with each and every individual’s exercise of his/her freedom with responsibility.

(The author is a researcher and an environmental activist)