Social media: Boon or bane for the North East people

Aribam Joy Sharma *

Social media: Boon or bane for the North East people

Recently there was a hue and cry about the misuse of the social media. It is resulted from using social media networking as a tool to incite terror among the North Easterners who are studying and working in other parts of India. The sequence is first the ethnic violence in Assam, then riots in Azad Maidan, Mumbai and then the unprecedented exodus of North East people from South Indian metros. Government of India has to respond, though not instantaneously, to contain the panic and thus censored more than 300 websites and blogs.

This censorship to regulate the social media was again criticized from many circles. But from the states to centre and from local media to international media both print and electronic were busy in reporting, publishing and discussing the issue of north easterner's exodus from some Indian cities. This was due to the mass hysteria created by the hate messages and doctored videos through the social media. Exploiting the situation, Chinese government's mouthpiece, Global Times can't remain silent without criticizing these US originated Youtube, Twitters and Facebook. They have already banned Youtube, Face book and Twitter since July 2009 Urumqi clashes in Xinjiang province.

Before this huge exodus was unfolded, recently I got the chance to attend a lecture delivered by Shashi Tharoor on "Freedom of Expression and Communication in the Internet age" at India International Centre, New Delhi. Dr. Tharoor, writer of seven books, Parliamentarian and a former Minister of State for External Affairs, is a firm advocate of benefits of social media in the public sphere in India.

After listening his speech on how social media is playing an important role in policy formulation, garnering public support in a Government policy and programmes, public diplomacy, mass awareness about the possible danger of a disaster, in toppling the authoritarian regimes in Arab countries, in mitigating the Earthquakes and Tsunami in Japan, etc., I was stunned by the recent criticisms against social media from different sections of the society.

The pertinent query emerged in mind is that 'Is it really fuel panic among the North Easterners who are studying and working in other parts of India by the social media networking sites. Yes, of course. The text messages, morphed images and the doctored video clips may or may not be real. But it leads to an exodus of tens of thousands of the North East people from Southern Indian cities on a great tide of fear which Indian state conceived as a threat to internal security and integrity of the nation.

India Government is worried about the feeling of alienation of the North East people which can be again fuelled by ensuing event. The resultant may be a threatening call to the integrity of the nation. From this we can draw two quite contrasting conclusions. For the North East people, it is the threat to basic right to life and personal security i.e. life and death. But for the mainland Indians, question is more of sovereignty, unity, integrity and public order of the Indian nation. That's why India government has to react fast and censored more than 300 websites which circulates the misleading rumour.

But, why both the state government and central government are still not keenly trying to control and contain violence in Assam? Ethnic violence in Assam is almost completed one month and more than 100 innocent persons have already killed in the clash. And thousands are leaving home to safer places in makeshift camps and still living there without the basic amenities of life.

Most of all know that the root cause of the ethnic violence in Assam is due to illegal immigration of Bengali speaking Muslims from Bangladesh. Why Indian State is not playing its diplomatic card to solve the menace with Bangladesh ? Are they buying time or not worried about the life of those innocent people dying or playing the dirty game of politics? For the welfare of the country, the issue needs to be taken care of as soon as possible.

Further the question of sense of belongingness and the feeling of alienation among the North East people needs to be relooked. Why North East people are fleeing those cities instantly? It is because of lack of sense of belongingness and vulnerability of their life and security in further stay. So the people of India, mainly Northern Indians, need to change their mindset. They need to understand the people of the country very well. People of the North East don't want to experience "Are you from Nepal?" again and again.

What this simple question connotes? We never asked them 'Are you from Pakistan or Sri Lanka or the other'? Rather we ask them 'Are you from Kashmir or Tamil Nadu or from Northern Parts of India'. At least they can mention one of the names of the 8 sates of the north eastern India. That shows that their lack of knowledge about the place and people of this region. They never allow North East people at par with them as Indian.

The Indian state and people are more bothered about the physicality and space of the region so that this part can strengthen their claim of Mera Bharat Mahan. Both the central government and state governments are ineffective and inefficient in controlling present violence in Assam and other ethnic clash broke out earlier in Meghalaya, Manipur and other parts of the North East India. History has shown it vividly.

On the other hand, over the last two years, there has been an explosion of social media in India with overwhelmingly young users. The Information Technology Ministry's 38-Page guideline said that with 40 million Facebook and 16 million Twitter users in India, social media have emerged as a powerful platform for forming an opinion as well as generating mass support.

Due to the present popularity of Social Media in India and the World, just after election as the 13th President of India, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee said that he is going to open a Facebook account to listen the independent voices of the people of India and abroad. Indian Prime Minister's Office and some more Ministries launched social media initiatives and currently using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Sensing the fluidity of the violence in Assam and the widespread usage of social media networking sites, some organized group of people used the Social Media as a tool to play their card. And it can be well-claimed that they are quite successful in creating panic among the North East people although it doesn't lead to great havoc in the country. If the central government has taken up immediate measures to contain the Assam violence in time, the first ever major physical impact of the social media network in the history of internet in India may not happened.

In addition, the Indian state and the people are quite vocal this time due to the challenge posed on sovereignty and integrity of the country and the censorship of social media. But it should be very clear that the violence in Assam and problems of the North East on one hand and the issue of censorship of the social media on the other are clearly different phenomena. To deal with these issues, Government of India calls for different sophisticated mechanisms. Questions of North East should not be blurred with the issue of censorship of the social networking sites.

Government of India needs a special cyber security cell with Cyber Experts in IT department to monitor and evaluate the objectionable, inflammatory contents and strong, effective cyber laws. Pointing a finger at Pakistan will not solve the problem. Government required a campaign using mass media, SMS, Internet, TV, etc against the rumors and morphed images.

A strong police support and assurance to the community is called for which is most of the time absent. And in order to tackle the ethnic and religious hatred in the North East, Government of India needs a sincere, holistic approach and mechanism without using conspiracy theories. Problems in Assam and North East cannot be addressed by mere pouring of more money and increasing the number of army battalions. Political parties, civil society organizations and the media should also play a pro-active role in solving the problems of the North East for the common cause of the country.

* Aribam Joy Sharma wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is working at Forum for Indigenous Perspectives and Action (FIPA), Paona International Market, Imphal, Manipur.
This article was posted on September 04, 2012.

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