Community Relations in the Information Age
Inter community relations have emerged as one of the key challenges in the information age particularly in South Asia in the past few months. There were tensions in various countries in the region; Rohingya crisis in Rakhine province of Myanmar, rioting and mayhem in Assam followed by exodus of people of North East India from Southern and Western metros and mass migration of Hindus from Pakistan being some of the notable incidents. These were particularly accentuated with serial events in the West such as the anti-Islam video and cartoons during September. The existing tinder box of fragile intercommunity relations conflagrated in various forms to include mass protest march, riots and arson many of which had an anti American tone.
Proactive actions by the American administration including President Barack Obama reduced the anger and ensured that some of the protests were non-violent. Yet in some cases such as in Pakistan over 25 persons were killed in a single day.
In related events, on 29 and 30 September, violence in Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong in Bangladesh saw mass destruction of Buddhist and Hindu religious places of worship which have been classified by the country’s administration as premeditated targeting by anti-social elements. The roots are being investigated but some denote it may have correlation with violence against Rohingya in Myanmar. Portends of spiraling impact of deterioration of inter community relations in one country spreading across the region were well identified.
In these incidents one common factor was the use of social media, internet and mobile communications to rapidly provide access to pictures and videos and hate messages through Multi Media Messages (MMS), thereby inflaming passions and rapid mobilization of a community through ubiquitous Short Messaging Service (SMS).
Which brings us to the response of governments and institutions to this crisis? Quite apparently the media was the first target with attempts to block the offensive sites and take out the videos on You Tube amongst other sources. But these soon reappeared indicating the futility of such restrictions in the information age.
In some cases as in Pakistan the government possibly felt that it would be more prudent to join in the protests to prevent these turning against the establishment particularly with a section of the population not happy with reset in US Pakistan relations. Similarly top visitors from the United States such as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E Dempsey were persuaded to postpone their visit even though they took the extreme precaution of not having accompanying entourage of journalists travel with them.
A far more effective means was used in Afghanistan which would have been perhaps the most volatile due to presence of large number of foreign troops particularly Americans. The public reaction was muted due to enlightened approach of the clergy who declared on the very first few days that protests should be non-violent. These appeals seemed to have a very seminal effect while some sources seemed to indicate that the so called Green on Blue or incidents of Afghans dressed in army uniform or soldiers themselves targeting NATO troops were a result of the anti-Islam video, there were possibly other factors as well. While the Taliban also claimed that an attack on a NATO base in Helmand was a reaction to the video, the nature of the well prepared strike indicated that they would have carried out the same any way using some other excuse.
The issue was considered serious enough in India for the Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh mentioning it in the annual conference of the police chiefs and emphasized the need for developing soft skills in management of such situations in the law and order leadership of the country.
Quite obviously the differences in perception between the West and the Rest are likely to persist on such issues, while in the former World these are taken as vectors of freedom of speech, in the latter as a deliberate slight. Thus more offensive videos and cartoons could be aired. Given permanent struggle for resources amongst the deprived of which there are huge numbers in South Asia conflicts as the Rohingya are likely to recur.
Putting into place mechanisms comprising of soft tools such as building inter community relations and appeals by saner elements of society while at the same time proactively targeting anti socials who use these events for their own advantage is the way ahead. A debate review of the context of freedom of speech in the West may also be necessary, for clearly colloquially speaking it is a case of one man’s freedom being another man’s poison.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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