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Hundreds of thousands flee their homes in India amid deadly ethnic violence

Thousands of migrants from India’s distant northeastern states are fleeing their new homes in the south amid deadly ethnic violence and a crisis that threatens the "unity" of the nation.
Image: Indians fleeing ethnic violence are seen at a train station in Assam state.
Indians originally from the northeastern states disembark from a train in Assam state, India, Saturday, as they flee ethnic violence.Anupam Nath / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

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.

Victims butchered, homes burned
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.

In 2003, India’s central government, then led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, brokered a deal in which Bodo insurgents agreed to cease their rebellions in exchange for the creation of a special autonomous region, now known as the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts. It was a formula long used by Indian leaders to subdue regional rebellions: persuade rebels to trade the power of the gun for the power of the ballot box.

Now the Bodos dominate the government overseeing the autonomous districts, even though they are not a majority, accounting for about 29 percent of a population otherwise splintered among Muslims, other indigenous tribal groups, Hindus and other native Assamese. Competition over landownership is a source of rivalry and resentment: the land rights of Muslims are tightly restricted inside the special districts, even though they constitute the region’s second-largest group, after the Bodos.

“This whole fight is about land and capturing power,” said Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a member of Parliament and a Muslim leader in a neighboring district. “It is not a religious fight.”

Ethnic cleansing?
These resentments exploded in July and early August, after an escalating cycle of attacks between Muslims and Bodos. Soon entire villages were being looted and burned. The authorities have made few arrests, and each side has blamed the other. The Bodos say illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh are streaming into the autonomous districts and taking over vacant land; Muslims say such claims are a smokescreen intended to disguise a Bodo campaign to drive out rightful Muslim residents in a campaign similar to so-called ethnic cleansing.

During the worst violence, the state government in Assam seemed paralyzed. One issue is that many former Bodo rebels never turned over their automatic weapons; some Muslims driven from their homes say Bodos scared them off by firing AK-47s into the air.

To visit some of the affected villages is to witness the eerie silence of lives brutally interrupted. In Brajakhal, the entire Muslim section was burned and looted, while the homes of non-Muslims were left untouched. In the nearby village of Chengdala, each side apparently attacked the other — both the Bodo and Muslim homes are destroyed, with a handful of others left standing.

Sumitra Nazary, a Bodo woman, said her elderly father was bludgeoned to death with an ax.

“He was paralyzed,” she said. “He couldn’t run away.”

It is uncertain when the people in the refugee camps will be able to return to their villages. Paramilitary units and Assam police officers have erected temporary guard posts outside many of the destroyed or looted villages, promising security.

Refugees ordered to return
Assam’s chief minister ordered refugees to begin returning to their homes this week, even as new violence was reported in some areas.

At the camps, life is increasingly miserable. This week, two members of the National Commission for Minorities visited the region and documented problems with sanitation, malnutrition and living conditions at different camps, particularly those inhabited by Muslims.

One camp had 10 makeshift toilets for 4,300 people. At another camp, they reported, more than 6,500 people were crammed into a converted high school, including 30 pregnant women.

The scene was little different at a Muslim refugee camp created at the Srirampur R.M.E. School. More than 5,200 people were living on the grounds, crowded under the shade of trees to hide from the broiling midday sun.

Goi Mohammad Sheikh, 39, brought his wife and five children to the camp, but was returning to their village at night to protect their home. It had been looted but not burned, he said, and he and a group of other men were standing guard.

“We want to protect our houses,” he said. “In some villages, it will not be possible to go back. It is too dangerous. But we will not leave our village. If they kill us, let them kill us. How do we leave our motherland?”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

This article, headlined "Panic Seizes India as a Region’s Strife Radiates," first appeared in The New York Times.