India always gives the impression of being held together by the most tenuous of tenuity. That impression is mostly wrong but there are times when it comes close to being right. The country witnessed one such time in the past few days.
Last month the Bodo tribal areas of the Northeastern state of Assam experienced bloody clashes between the indigenous tribe members and Muslims, who are mostly illegal migrants from Bangladesh, over land ownership and power. The clashes, although serious, were seen by some as yet another case of an improbably diverse country relieving its societal stresses. That glib perspective may not necessarily have been inaccurate except that like in all such conflagrations real people died and a large number of real people was terminally devastated. More than 70 people died and hundreds of thousands others fled because of the Bodo-Muslim violence.
Just as the tensions seemed to be simmering down in the northeast corner of the country, something strange started happening a few days ago in the southwest corner. Rumors started spreading via text messages and on social networks that Muslims in southern and western Indian cities of Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and Mumbai were preparing to unleash retaliatory violence against people from the northeast living in these parts of the country. There was a particularly rough protest in Mumbai by Muslim groups. A lot of the northeasterners in these parts of India are young students and workers drawn to greater economic opportunities here compared to their home states.
The rumors seemed to work as the settlers from Assam and elsewhere began a mass exodus from Bangalore, Chennai,Hyderabad,Pune and Mumbai. Trains from these cities bound for Assam filled up over five times their capacity with fleeing northeasterners. Things got so tense that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to portentously declare in parliament, “What is at stake is the unity and integrity of our country. What is at stake is communal harmony.”
These are the times when one is compelled to ask the single most enduring question that has rattled behind the elephant that is India since its independence—Can India keep it altogether? Even though the answer has been a resounding yes, notwithstanding repeated events that seemed to suggest otherwise, the question never really goes away.
Few countries are as ripe for rumor-mongering as India and with the extraordinary penetration of mobile telephony coupled with cheap texting, the combination can be deadly.
Many in India, including in the government, believe that the rumors of an impending Muslim retaliation against the people from the northeast was part of carefully orchestrated conspiracy. As the rumors have died down the exodus has all but ceased but not before reviving doubts over the fragile nature of the union. But if I know anything about India it is that the reports of its unraveling always turn out to be exaggerated. Perhaps there is something intrinsic to the elasticity of the Indian nationhood that it can be stretched beyond a breaking point and brought right back. Or perhaps I don’t know what I am talking about.