Home >Opinion >Online-views >From the frontlines of the Assamese exodus

The tea shops of Chaipoint, which we co-founded in 2010, dot the Bangalore landscape. We provide high quality, freshly brewed, hygienic tea at a smidgen of a price premium above the alternative available from the dishevelled ambulatory roadside tea vendor to the Indian-on-the-go. Our customers are often lower middle-class clerks in a government office, taxi or truck drivers, or college students, who aspire to something better, but can’t afford Starbucks-style cafes.

Over one-third of the several dozen employees who staff the retail outlets, and deliver large volumes of tea daily to surrounding businesses, are Assamese, or from the other northeastern Indian states. They are industrious and loyal economic migrants from a disenfranchised part of the country where it is customary to refer to the rest of India as the “mainland", a testimony to their home region’s economic isolation.

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Despite the blissful ignorance of the media, our Assamese colleagues were aware of the brewing animus almost immediately after the initial onset of unrest in Assam. We tried to assuage our employees’ concerns, perhaps they were over-reacting to rumours? With hindsight, it’s clear that they were better informed than we were, aided by their compatriots and now-commonplace technological appurtenances.

As the Assamese helped each other, so also India’s Muslim community rallied. The community is often on edge. It belongs and is dedicated to India, but feels underappreciated. The Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, leaving hundreds dead, have not been forgotten; any event can trigger insecurity and nerves. That the spark that lit this conflagration was ultimately an economic-immigration related dispute in a remote border state did nothing to prevent it from becoming an issue of Muslim identity across the nation.

Yet, we saw local communities bravely resist the hysteria, a testimony to the strength of the social fabric. We consulted widely with leaders and elders of all communities in the localities where we had retail outlets. Muslim leaders were very helpful. They were well apprised of the seriousness of the situation, and advised us to move our Assamese colleagues out of the Muslim neighbourhoods. We followed their advice despite the disruption to our retail operations.

We treat our employees, Assamese and otherwise, with far greater care than the median business catering to our middle-income segment. For economic migrants, the training in basic business processes, the familiarity with hygiene and grooming, the issuance of clean uniforms, and, especially, the provision of staff quarters, are all appreciated. We moved the frightened Assamese into our safest staff quarters (these are modest apartments, each of which service a cluster of retail stores) because in life-and-death situations, safety came first, and it was a measure of our commitment to them and their families in Assam.

Ultimately, though, the rising hysteria proved too much. So we switched gears just a couple of days later, and began to facilitate, rather than discourage, their exodus from Bangalore. We lengthened the shifts in some stores and adjusted the store opening hours to try to compensate for the disruption.

Throughout, the Indian state did not respond. But its Nero-like insouciance is, sadly, not news. Just in the middle of this episode, the country was busy celebrating its 66th year of independence, and the bronze medal of, ironically, a north-easterner—boxer Mary Kom—in the Olympics.

Our intuition as entrepreneurs tells us that the goodwill will pay off for Chaipoint. Once they feel safe, our Assamese colleagues are itching to return, as they tell us in frequent messages and calls. When they do, we will welcome them back. As a fast-growing company, we can use their help.

Ultimately, local action, in this case by entrepreneurs like us, and by well-meaning community leaders of all religious and social stripes, chagrined by the hysteria, compensated partly for the state’s absence. Better management of the Assam-Bangladesh border concerns, better recognition of the identity of citizens and immigrants in the region, might have forestalled the tragic rumour mill. And, once the crisis was under way, doing something other than resorting to blaming Pakistan for fomenting tension, would have been helpful. As our little business demonstrates, local, decentralized initiative cannot completely substitute for the widening lack of public leadership.

Amuleek Singh Bijral is founder of Chaipoint, a Bangalore headquartered retail tea chain. Tarun Khanna, a founding investor in Chaipoint, is Jorge Paulo Lemann professor at Harvard Business School and director of Harvard’s South Asia Initiative.

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