Panic Seizes India as a Region’s Strife Radiates
Like a fever, fear has spread across India this week, from big cities like Bangalore to smaller places like Mysore, a contagion fueling a message: Run. Head home. Flee. And that is what thousands of migrants from the country’s distant northeastern states are doing, jamming into train stations in an exodus challenging the Indian ideals of tolerance and diversity.
What began as an isolated communal conflict here in the remote state of Assam, a vicious if obscure fight over land and power between Muslims and the indigenous Bodo tribe, has unexpectedly set off widespread panic among northeastern migrants who had moved to more prosperous cities for a piece of India’s rising affluence.
A swirl of unfounded rumors, spread by text messages and social media, had warned of attacks by Muslims against northeastern migrants, prompting the panic and the exodus. Indian leaders, deeply alarmed, have pleaded for calm, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared in Parliament on Friday to denounce the rumor mongering and offer reassurance to northeastern migrants.
“What is at stake is the unity and integrity of our country,” Mr. Singh said. “What is at stake is communal harmony.”
The hysteria in several of the country’s most advanced urban centers has underscored the deep roots of ethnic tensions in India, where communal conflict is usually simplified as Hindu versus Muslim, yet is often far more complex. For decades, Indian leaders have mostly managed to isolate and triangulate regional ethnic conflicts, if not always resolve them, but the public panic this week is a testament to how the old strategies may be less effective in an information age.
Last week, the central government started moving to stabilize Assam, where at least 78 people have been killed and more than 300,000 have fled their homes for refugee camps. Then Muslims staged a large, angry protest in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, on the western coast. A wave of fear began sweeping through the migrant communities after several people from the northeast were beaten up in Pune, a city not far from Mumbai.
By Wednesday and Thursday, the exodus had begun. So many people were pouring into train stations in Bangalore and Chennai that the Railways Ministry later added special services to certain northeastern cities. By Friday, even as some of the fears eased in the biggest cities, people were leaving smaller cities, including Mysore and Mangalore.
To many northeastern migrants, the impulse to rush home — despite the trouble in Assam — is a reminder of how alienated many feel from mainstream India. The northeast, tethered to the rest of the country by a narrow finger of land, has always been neglected. Populated by a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, the seven states of the northeast have also been plagued by insurgencies and rivalries as different groups compete for power.
Here in Assam, the underlying frictions are over the control of land, immigration pressures and the fight for political power. The savagery and starkness of the violence have been startling. Of the 78 people killed, some were butchered. More than 14,000 homes have been burned. That 300,000 people are in refugee camps is remarkable; had so many people fled across sub-Saharan Africa to escape ethnic persecution, a humanitarian crisis almost certainly would have been declared.
“If we go back and they attack us again, who will save us?” asked Subla Mushary, 35, who is now living with her two teenage daughters at a camp for Bodos. “I have visited my home. There is nothing left.”
Assam, which has about 31 million people, has a long history of ethnic strife. The current violence is focused on the westernmost region of the state, which is claimed by the Bodos as their homeland. For years, Bodo insurgent groups fought for political autonomy, with some seeking statehood and others seeking an independent Bodo nation.