Tens of thousands of people from Assam and other northeastern states have fled Bangalore since Thursday despite authorities’ attempts to stamp out rumors of pending attacks on their communities. On Friday afternoon, some 1,500 workers and students were camped out in the city’s railway station, waiting for specially scheduled trains that have been arranged to ferry people back to their homes in India’s northeast. Railway authorities told the Hindustan Times that at least eight trains carrying as many as 30,000 people had left for that part of the country in the past three days.
In the past week, rumors have been circulating via SMS of an attack on people from northeastern India on Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated this weekend, allegedly in retaliation for riots that broke out in the state of Assam last month. More than 70 people were killed and some 400,000 displaced in clashes between the ethnic Bodo group and Muslim settlers in a conflict alternately cast as a battle over illegal immigration, religion and the struggle for limited resources in a poor and remote part of the country.
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Although reverberations of the Assam riots have also been felt in clashes in Pune and Mumbai, the fear in Bangalore reached a unique crescendo. Though the police said no reports of violence have been reported as of Friday, rumors of thuggery and threats were circulated by the dark text messages. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who represents Assam in the Parliament’s upper house, condemned those spreading rumors on Friday, saying they “should be brought to book as at stake is not the just unity and integrity of the country, but also communal harmony.” The government has now enforced a ban on mass text messaging that it says will stay in place for the next two weeks, and on Saturday several individuals had reportedly been detained in connection with the messages, according to the Press Trust of India.
Roughly 100,000 students and workers from northeast India have been living in Bangalore for years, seeking opportunities that they could not find back home where unemployment runs high. “These people have been living in Bangalore for the past 15 years,” Bangalore’s deputy police commissioner V.S. D’Souza said in a phone interview on Friday. “There has never been a problem. This is totally new.”
D’Souza said that by Friday afternoon his office had received 4,000 calls in 48 hours from frightened citizens and their relatives trying to figure out whether the threat was real. “This happened. That happened. Nobody knows what happened actually,” D’Souza said. “Parents and relatives have been asking people from Bangalore to come back to their hometowns.” Armed forces have been deployed on the streets, and authorities have held several meetings with community members around the city to try to calm the panic and assure them that they will be protected.
Though northeasterners, many of whom have East Asian features that set them physically apart from other Indians, have reported being the target of racial slurs and discrimination in many parts of the country for years, the problem has never been pronounced in Bangalore. Observers say the week’s events are more a repercussion of the heated anti-immigrant and communal rhetoric used to talk about the Assam riots than the venting of deep-seated religious tensions. “They have to stop describing this as an immigrant issue, and it has to stop being projected as an attack on Islam,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “While there are many attacks against Islam, this is not one of them.”
Ganguly says the onus is on political and religious leaders to start a more responsible conversation about the violence in the northeast and to work toward a resolution. “It will fester unless something is done,” she says. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation announced a cash reward on Saturday for anyone who has information about perpetrators of the violence in Assam.