Thousands of Indians flee Bangalore after text message warnings

Indian leaders appealed for calm on Friday as natives of northeastern India now living in the south left en masse for a third day over safety concerns.

Aijaz Rahi/AP
People from India's northeastern states arrive to take a special train home, at a railway station in Bangalore, India, Friday, Aug. 17. Thousands of northeasterners who work and study in Bangalore – India's 4th largest city and information technology hub – are fleeing, fearing that recent violence in the northeastern state of Assam, which displaced some 300,000, would spread south.

Thousands of Indians have fled southern and western cities in response to text-message warnings and threats said to be from Indian Muslims angered at recent ethnic clashes in the northeast. 

Thousands of northeasterners who work and study in BangaloreIndia's 4th largest city and information technology hub – are fleeing, fearing that recent violence in the northeastern state of Assam, which displaced some 300,000, would spread south.

Rumor and fear-mongering seem to be trumping hard evidence of any real threat, however. 

“There was some talk about text messages saying that people would be attacked. But we do not know, really,” says 18-year old civil engineering student Takan Sama minutes before his train to Assam was slated to depart Bangalore rail station.

India has a history of communal and sectarian riots.

Tensions are particularly high after July riots in Assam involving local tribes and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh sparked deadly counter-demonstrations by Muslims in Mumbai on Aug. 11, when two were killed and more than 50 injured. Then, starting Wednesday Aug. 15, which was India's 65th anniversary of independence from Great Britain, as the rumor went viral, Assamese and other northerners started leaving in droves via Bangalore's central rail station, trying to make the 2.5 day journey to Guwahati in Assam.

By Friday, northeasterners living in other big cities such as Mumbai and Chennai were also trying to head home, and local media reports Friday afternoon estimated the exodus so far to be anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people.

Speaking earlier Friday, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put the exodus in the context of India's often fractious inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations. "What is at stake is the unity of our country. What is at stake is communal harmony," he told India's Parliament, as fresh clashes were reported in Assam state in the northeast.

In response to the text messages, which appeared to be spreading the panic, authorities called for a 15-day restriction on cellphone users, limiting the sending of messages to a maximum of five recipients.

Asked why he was making a 2,000+ mile train journey based on a rumor, Takan Sama, from Arunachal Pradesh, a northern Indian region claimed by China, said that “our parents are telling us to come back, they are scared it is not safe.”

Traffic signs in Bangalore flashed exhortations like “Bangalore is a safe city” and “Don't listen to rumours.” Authorities pleaded by TV, newspaper, and in person with northeasterners, who are a vital cog in Bangalore's world-renowned IT and call center-driven economy, to stay.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization that has been accused of past involvement in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian riots elsewhere in India, said it was doing its best to reassure northeasterners that they would protect them from any threat, real or otherwise.

RSS cadres marched around the Bangalore train station late Thursday night, clad in boy scout-style knee-length shorts and wielding 4-5 foot canes.

“We RSS members are trying to build confidence in them,” says RSS representative Karunakaira Rai, referring to northeasterners. “We tell them we are all brothers, they need not worry.”

As Mr. Rai spoke to some 30 RSS volunteers at the train station's entrance, groups of Assamese nearby slumped wearily over cases and bags. One man, refusing to give his name, said that they had been waiting since Wednesday morning for a seat to Assam. He said, “we don't feel safe, we heard some people were attacked and beaten.” 

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