Broad-Gauge

Credit: mattlogelin / flickr

There’s no picture more traumatic to the Indian imagination than that of thousands of people crammed into trains, fleeing for their lives. Flash back to 1947, when trains crossing between West Pakistan and north India steamed out of their stations filled with refugees and arrived at their destinations filled with corpses. The migrating dead were Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who—stranded on the wrong side of the religious partition of British India, learning that it was now open season on their community and property—took flight for the border. About a million never made it. So (sixty-five years ago to the day), as India awoke to sovereignty and democracy, the sight before its eyes was a snarl of minority terror, slaughter, and trains.

This was the image that much of India had to suppress, and a few provocateurs predictably stoked, on August 15 this year. It should have been another drowsy Independence Day, a mid-week chance to sleep in while the monsoon shook the last drops out of its watering-can. Instead, at Bangalore’s City Station, thousands of people pressed into emergency trains leaving for distant Guwahati, the latter a transport hub for the seven small states in India’s out-flung northeastern limb.

Most of the indigenous groups in that region (“Northeasterners” to the rest of us) have facial features and skin-tones that make them look more like South-East Asians than what we think of as Indians—a matter they’re rarely allowed to forget when they live away from home. In recent weeks, two situations had set the dismal categories of “Muslims” and “Northeasterners” (or in the nasty demotic, “chinkies”) against each other. First, there was a spike in the decades-old persecution of Muslim Rohingyas by the Burmese-majority state of Myanmar. Shortly afterward, violence flared up between indigenous Bodo and migrant Muslim communities in Assam, one of the largest of the northeastern states, which led to Muslim groups agitating in cities like Bombay. Eventually, in Bangalore, tales of Muslim rage quivered with hyperbole. Skull-capped goons were banging on doors, warning that when Ramadan ended, the blood of Northeasterners would mingle in the streets with blood of the goats. By Independence Day, thousands were crammed into trains, apparently fleeing for their lives.

In the American vision of urban apocalypse, Hope and Doom ride in cars: orders to evacuate lead to a grid-lock on the interstate (in one car, the hero’s wife and daughter are in danger). India doesn’t have enough highway to serve widespread terror; our Horsemen ride the trains. It isn’t only the memory of Partition that dictates this, but our sense of the railway network at the very heart of the violent business of making and unmaking the nation. India’s railways, one of the largest by track-length in the world, are an essential piece of our imperial patrimony. The railways and the English language top the roster of technologies that made it possible for diverse territories, poured into the odd mold of British India, to cool and harden into a nation-state. Saying “trains” is also a proxy for imperial violence and extraction (they carried troops to, and resources away from, fertile peripheries: nation-building business which carried right on after 1947). “It may be a debatable matter whether railways spread famines,” Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj in 1909, “But it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” Yet he conducted his own anti-colonial ministry by rail.

Obvious, then, that when a new country was sawed off from the shoulders of the old one, the trains were the arteries from which blood poured, and which we’re still trying to cauterize sixty-five years later. Even now, an attack on a train generally represents a gash in the slowly-woven fabric of national ideology. This was never clearer than in 2002, when a train carriage was set on fire in the state of Gujarat, prompting a state-wide choreography of massacres; another mass-depatriation of Muslims from a Hindu-majority society. The Hindu nationalist government which thereby hardened its base in Gujarat would, of course, come to be praised for making the trains run on time.

No surprise, also, that the regions where the national idea is least convincing are terrain which hasn’t been reached by the railways: Kashmir in the north, and all the states barring Assam in the northeast, corresponding exactly to where India’s armed secessionist movements still exist. The gauge of national integration is broad-gauge.

Yet Bangalore, in the peninsular south of India, had been far removed from the anguish of Partition, or any of the ethnic displacements that have harrowed India’s borders since. The image of our fair city does not admit the possibility of ethnic flight: to begin with, the weather is just too nice. Besides, Bangalore was constituted by the arrival of outsiders: first the British, whose army cantonment was the germ-plasm of the liberal, Anglophonic modern city; then the Tamil- and Telugu-speakers from neighboring states, carted in to provide labor; next, by middle-class professionals from around the country, employed in defense and engineering institutions that needed to be built away from sensitive borders.

Later, when deregulation and digitally-enabled outsourcing lit up an economic halo above the city, they came from everywhere, whirlpooled in from Dallas as well as Dimapur. Bangalore grew into the angel child among India’s brood of self-harming delinquents and dullards: the virtuous offspring of equal eastern and Western stock, in whom native ingenuity and foreign capital were connected by broadband to produce a genuine high-value industry in a Third World nation. India’s largest software companies, many listed on NASDAQ, are headquartered here; one CEO even provided Tom Friedman the title for his neoliberal tract, The World is Flat. All our trains were meant to be arrivals.

Instead the trains pulled away, through the afternoon and into the night of August 15, carrying maybe 7,000 passengers. Then all that remained on the platform were lost sandals, unshaven railway officers, and an air of mystery so thick you could cut it with a knife. Like any good mystery, this one contained logistical puzzles (why, if the state government wanted to reassure the Northeasterners, were emergency trains arranged to evacuate them? Was it because the railways are run by the Central government in Delhi, where a rival party is in power?), enigmata of psychology (Why did a panicked population not contact the police? Why so susceptible to rumor?), and one central, existential demand (Why Bangalore?)

After Ramzan, of course, no attacks transpired. Some residents were harassed outside malls; one was struck on the shoulder with a motorcycle helmet. This was the kind of bullying you might find anytime, given the endemic tension between young, unrooted people in a very big city. There’s been no credible evidence of a organized campaign of violence; instead there’s mounting evidence of an organized campaign to insinuate rumours of violence, mainly through text-messages and social media networks. Anonymous groups had dumped masses of fallacious text messages, such as this one, onto cellular networks:

Plz Its a request to everyone to call their relatives, son and daughter FRM bangalore to call them back as soon as possible. Last night 4 north east guys were killed by muslims at bangalore (2 manipuri, 2 nepali) and also reports are after 20th ie ramzan after 2pm they are going to attack every north eastern people. the main reason that started all this riot was the situation at Kokrajar of Assam … b aware of dis n stay away frm the danger do pass da msg.

City police, who never saw a mystery they couldn’t fix with a few bathetic (and barely credible) arrests, were eventually “tipped off” to a cell-phone business employing three young Muslim men. Under “sustained interrogation” they admitted to their role in the scare. Radical Hindu groups seem to have run their own campaign; having spread rumors from the background, they then materialized at the fore, volunteering for the Northeasterners’ defense. In what teenagers everywhere called a draconian act, the government restricted all cell phones to sending five texts a day.

Bangalore’s social history, and the peculiarly tolerant character it has given the city, do not serve the purposes of all concerned. The city is no Peaceable Kingdom where the lion shall lay down with the lamb, but its climate is temperate in more than meteorological terms, and old divisive strategies that obtain political dividends in other cities haven’t had much traction here. That alone calls for a new technology of fear and provocation, and new technology is what Bangalore does best.

It may be only incidental, but it’s appropriate that the key events which led to the shame of Bangalore were two mobilizations of social media of a sort we haven’t seen before. First, in July, the persecution of Rohingyas was misrepresented on Facebook and other social-networking groups. Streams of photographs claiming to show “Muslims slaughtered by Buddhists in Burma” turn out to be a bloody bricolage of images of repression from all over Asia. This propaganda had a part in moving some Muslims to their destructive agitation in Bombay.

Radical Hindu groups, whatever their connection to the text messages, have used Facebook and Twitter to their own ends. The public eye has fallen on something called the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, named after an anti-colonial revolutionary who was hanged by the British. On their Facebook page, they describe themselves thus: “In a nation infested with enemies and traitors, we’re a voice screaming to be heard, by a system which pretends to be deaf.” The BSKS was one of the first to report a Muslim fatwa against Northeasterners in Bangalore. Then digital networks of Northeastern youth, on Facebook, on Orkut, supercharged the rumors and conducted them to tens of thousands of devices without ever tipping off the police. And Bangalore, two decades into the thrill of an electronic economy, experienced a lurching symptom of being an electronic society.

In the summer of 2010, after the government restricted the use of cell phones in Kashmir, Facebook groups sprung up to provoke action, support free expression and exchange, and build solidarity between protesters across the state. The result was a summer of stones flying and bullets returned. It was an early sign that social networks, despite the lame efforts to activate citizens within the democratic rules, were far from politically inert. The events in Bangalore reveal new evidence that, in the parlance of social capital theory, electronic networking is more effective at producing “bonding” capital within groups than “bridging” capital between them. There’s nothing new about the use of the digital network to mobilize people; what’s new is using it to terrorize them.

The railway network served to integrate the nation, but in Bangalore, a new network has just revealed its power to disintegrate it. Both are treated as ethical technologies; we’re confident that as their networks spread they will connect and unify, even though violence turns out to be a large part of their freight. They are both models of accessibility, and means of escape, for the poor. Both transcend national boundaries, yet trains still managed to reproduce the shape of the Indian state, while social networks are revealing sub-national or trans-national shapes that undermine it.

Another difference is that the railway network has always been state-built, whereas the infrastructure of digital networks is privately built, and the linkages it creates can be privately realigned to create further privacies online. When ethnic groups connect primarily through insular digital networks, the malware of perverse information has a power we could never have imagined, until it cast this weird and watery shadow of Partition onto an Independence Day sixty-five years later. So far, the collective response of the state, much of the media, and compliant ISPs has been to double down on a mandate for censoring the web. But the public comedy of the Ministry of Home Affairs flagging random scraps of URL—the futility of it—makes one thing certain. The network which Bangalore needs right now will not be made of steel nor optical fiber.

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