Barely a week after Mary Kom, the pint-sized boxing dynamo from Manipur, was embraced by the nation for her stunning performance in the Olympics (and we all shared her heartbreak at the premature end to her challenge in the semi-finals), a section of India turned upon the people not just from her state but also the neighbouring ones—a constellation that most of us loosely refer to as the North-East—residing in various parts of India. And thanks to the bumbling government, both at the centre and the states, the intimidation of the goons succeeded and triggered their unprecedented exodus back to their home states.

Two things stand out immediately. First, this situation is simply unacceptable. The rights of citizens of India are equal and no one has special privileges or first rights over others. These are guaranteed in the Constitution and not something that is to be doled out as largesse. This message has to be sent out unequivocally, first by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and, then, echoed by the respective state governments; and not as some confused signals with one eye on electoral implications of such certitude.

This symbolic targeting of communities based on their religion, race or caste is not something new either in India or the world. While the frequency has definitely subsided, the incidence has not. In recent memory, we have two such similar instances: Once, in 1984, when members of the Sikh community were massacred and, later, the targeting of Muslims in Gujarat at the turn of the millennium—in both instances, people are still seeking justice, either politically or in the courts. I am reminded about the compelling verses that were coined by German pastor Martin Niemöller in response to the Nazi crackdown in the last century and the lessons that they hold for us:

First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

While the moment demands a decisive response, the political establishment is vacillating even as some political parties cannot resist the temptation of dabbling in the controversy for future political gains. Once again, Indian politicians are exhibiting myopia.

Writing in The Indian Express newspaper on 17 August on the Assam imbroglio, Seema Chisti rightly concludes: “Not only are its aftershocks being felt far away from Guwahati, but it also has the potential to provide a more worrying template nationally, for a politics of hate, which India seemed to have laid to rest."

Secondly, the shameful developments of last week yet again question India’s commitment to make a transition to a rules-based regime—a basic prerequisite to justify its place at the global high table. First, the UPA unnecessarily expended so much social capital to effect a mid-course correction in the tax rules, signalling that investments were not necessarily secure. And now after a change of guard in North Block, the UPA is once again expending precious social capital to try and undo, if not mitigate, the fallout of these legislative changes—begetting the question that what is bad now could not have been good then.

And now, more worryingly, after the race-based attacks, the signal going out is that not just investments, even citizens (or residents) of this country are not secure. It is nothing but a complete breakdown of trust in government, when people vote with their feet instead of believing authorities that their personal safety will be guaranteed.

With the government’s credibility at such an all-time low, are we surprised that a bunch of rumours, emerging allegedly from Pakistan (at least that is what the home secretary has concluded), could first intimidate and then force such a large number of people to actually retreat.

And that all of this happened just after the country celebrated its 65th Independence Day adds insult to injury; gaining freedom from the imperialist clutches is one thing and ensuring the rights of the citizens of Independent India as enshrined in the constitution is another.

Is Indian polity listening?

Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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