Thousands from north flee south India in fear
NEW DELHI // Thousands of people from north-eastern India living in the southern cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad fled yesterday, fearing attacks in retaliation for ethnic violence that has rocked Assam state in recent weeks.
Railway officials said they arranged for extra trains from Bangalore to Assam to accommodate a spike in demand after 6,000 tickets for trains headed north for Guwahati were sold from Wednesday evening through to yesterday.
"Those fleeing are mostly high school and college students whose parents are worried," the women's right activist Binalaksmi Nepram said in Delhi. "The parents want their children to come home."
Those fleeing the cities said rumours were being spread by text message that they would be attacked by Muslims, who are said to be angered by religious and ethnic clashes in Assam. Violence between members of the indigenous Bodo tribe and Muslims in Assam has killed more than 50 people and left 400,000 in displacement camps in recent weeks.
Decades of ethnic strife in India's north-east has forced hundreds of thousands of young people to move out of the region in search of education and employment opportunities. They find jobs mostly in the service sector in the big cities, working in restaurants, shops and airlines.
Ms Nepram, who founded the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, has two nieces and a nephew in Bangalore. Her nephew, who is at university, told her: "Auntie, these may be rumours but what happens if reality strikes and there is a midnight knock on my door?"
India's home minister said authorities were investigating the alleged threats.
"I appeal to the people not to spread any rumours," Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters in Delhi yesterday. "Strict action will be taken against those who do that."
The home minister of Karnataka, the state of which Bangalore is the capital, confirmed that 6,800 people had fled by Wednesday.
On Wednesday evening, R Ashok was at the Bangalore railway station where he made repeated appeals to the crowds, assuring them of safety. People continued to complain that the police had been unresponsive to their complaints about the threatening text messages they had received.
There were rumours that the people from the north-east, who look more East Asian than most Indians, were asked to leave before the end of Ramadan, or they would be attacked, police said.
"We are trying to ascertain whether this is a fact," said Ms Nepram. "But we can confirm that somebody is spreading these rumours."
Ms Nepram said she had yet to see a text message but had been told by people who were fleeing that they were reacting to word spreading about the message.
There have been reports of isolated assaults - mostly on students leaving school or returning to their hostels — in Pune, in western India, and Mysore in the south targeting people who look like they are from the north-east. Thirteen people were arrested in Pune yesterday for the alleged assaults.
Some believe the attacks are in response to police crackdowns on Muslim rallies. A rally by Muslims in Mumbai on Saturday protesting against the violence in Assam turned violent. Two people were killed, 55 were wounded and 10,000 rioted. This came amid warnings from the police about anger in the Muslim community over the breakdown of law and order in parts of Assam.
Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam, confirmed yesterday that at least two special trains had left Bangalore for Guwahati. "Government has taken all precaution," he told reporters in Guwahati, Assam's largest city.
Mr Gogoi seemed to contradict himself when he said that there had been no attacks in Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai and Pune are located, yet said there were "some incidents" in Pune. Mr Gogoi also quashed rumours that people from the north-east were being targeted in Kerala.
"Yes there is an exodus but there is no major incident." Mr Gogoi said.
The minister, speaking in Guwahati, asked people not to come back because of the rumours, asking them to stay put at their jobs and schools.
People arriving in Guwahati told local television they had taken last-minute decisions to flee Hyderabad and Kerala.
Meanwhile in Assam, fresh violence erupted in the towns of Rangiya and Baksa yesterday where mobs torched buses and cars after a protest blocking a national motorway turned violent on Wednesday night.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press
Published: August 17, 2012 04:00 AM