Activists of All Assam Minorities Students Union shout slogans during a torch protest against the lynching of a man accused of rape. (AP Photo)A few days before the lynching of rape accused Syed Farid Khan in Dimapur, my mother, who lives in Guwahati, called up to share something that had disturbed her.
That day, my mother said, the vegetable vendor at the bazar had a tiff with some customers. The men, she said, slapped the vendor and warned him, "You miyas (a pejorative used for both Bangladeshis and Bengali-speaking Muslims) better learn to behave in our land."
When my mother accosted the men and asked if they knew for sure the vendor was a Bangladeshi, they dismissed her query and claimed it was obvious - their reason being he was a Muslim and spoke Bengali.
Initial reactions to Khan's lynching were no different: several political groups, the media and even a top police officer of Dimapur claimed the lynched man was a Bangladeshi without verifying facts. By Saturday afternoon, however, the air was cleared and it was confirmed Khan belonged to a family of soldiers, leave alone being a foreigner. He was a Bengali-speaking Muslim whose family had lived in Assam for generations.
This kneejerk reaction reflects the vulnerability of identities in the Northeast, where communities have been involved in ethnic and communal clashes born out of perceived socio-cultural threats.
"The initial reaction shows how simplistic and narrow the understanding of identity is here. A person's religion and his language is enough to make assumptions about his nationality, without caring to analyse any further," says Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, a former Manipuri journalist.
"There is fear regarding the people perceived to be 'Bangladeshis', the fear of losing out on resources and opportunities. And a lot of it is politically motivated."
The history of the migration of Bengali-speaking people, both Hindus and Muslims, into the Northeast is an old one, ranging from the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Socio-political debates continue on the issue, even as analysts argue it is more a "political bogey" than a serious large-scale threat to India.
Growing up in Assam in the 1990s, I was often called a 'Bangal', a derogatory reference to Bengali speakers and a remnant of the anti-Bengali sentiment stoked during the Assam Movement. I have also witnessed chauvinistic crowds rough up working class men from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on the streets of Guwahati.
Parallel to that, I saw the identity movements of the Bodo, Karbi and Rabha tribes grow and often turn violent. The Bodoland movement, over the years, has claimed thousands of Assamese and Bengali lives, both Muslims and Hindus, while separatist movements have raged in Manipur and Nagaland.
The Northeast, in addition to its original, highly heterogeneous ethnic composition, has experienced a series of migrations - Ahoms from South Asia who came in 1228 and ended up ruling for six centuries, Bengali Hindus and Muslims from erstwhile undivided Bengal, Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh in several phases, Nepalis and Marwaris.
Because of these migrations, indigenous communities always voiced their fears of losing their identity along with their land to "outsiders". And this fear of the "other", laid bare to the manipulation of sectarian and identity politics, has led to the worst of consequences.
"Though many identity movements in the Northeast started historically as resistance against different dominant hegemonies, over time, most of these have degenerated into exclusivist notions of identity, where all sense of solidarity between different oppressed groups have given away to a sense of mutual suspicion," says Kaustubh Deka, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Delhi.
"The overall overarching backdrop is the crumbling resources that all are fighting for. Phobia for the outsider is born out of that insecurity. A community always evolves through contestations and uncertainties, forcefully trying to change this course leads to violent outcomes," Deka adds.
Khan's lynching isn't merely a case study of how awful vigilante justice can be, or for that matter of reverse racism by the tribes of the Northeast. It is, to say the least, an indication of the highly complex demographic processes that are underway in the region.