The large scale departure of people hailing from the North-East, fleeing many cities across the nation, now also from Lucknow and the state of Goa, has raised serious questions about the government’s ability to make them feel protected and to quell the rumours of impending attacks on them.
Today is the fifth day that sees North-East bound trains packed with people escaping the city they once considered home. Shamefully, our city, which prides itself as the economic capital of the country and claims to be a secure place for all those who work hard, is one of the centres where rumour-mongers have had a field day, and consequently have created an environment of fear. Such is the magnitude of the fear generated that those leaving are not sure whether they want to come back. The Mumbai-based Assam Association is an umbrella organisation that addresses issues of people from the North-East and has been actively trying to defuse the current situation. Santoshee Mishra spoke to Deepen Rajkonwar, the General Secretary of the organisation, who talked at length about the still unfolding tragedy.
Why are people from the North-East fleeing the city?
The panic did not actually start from Mumbai. Initially, students in Hyderabad and Bangalore were told by their landlords to be cautious in the aftermath of the Azad Maidan rampage. What worsened the situation was that they were told (correctly) that Azad Maidan was very close to the Police Headquarters, and yet the situation got out of hand.
Besides, there had been a few cases in Pune last month, where students from the North-East got beaten up, so the undercurrents of a credible threat were already being felt in Mumbai. Then came the rumours and unverified reports from Bangalore, Mysore and Hyderabad, which spread very quickly via SMS and MMS, and increased the panic. At this point, the rumours should have been quashed by the authorities, but this did not happen, which led to the common man thinking: ‘Why have the governments failed to protect us?’
At present, we are trying our best to convince people that there is no reason for them to be scared. Though many have already fled the city, we are continuing with our efforts.
What methods are you using to communicate with the panic-stricken people?
We have a data-base of people from the North-East who are residing here. We are contacting them by way of calls on their mobile phones, SMS, emails and are using social networking sites. The Assam Association is telling people individually that there is no need at all to flee the city and is assuring them that the law and order situation is under control. Even I am personally meeting and contacting as many people as I can to ward-off their fears.
However, despite the government’s attempt to ease the situation, an air of uncertainty continues to disturb the people, who feel compelled to leave and are still moving out of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune. Besides, the incident at Azad Maidan has lessened their faith in the law and order situation, after the police personnel themselves suffered at the hands of rioters. There are rumours circulating of an impending attack on them, and hence we have seen this mass exodus for the third day in a row on Saturday, where they thronged to railway stations in an attempt to catch a train home.
Could you give us a rough demography of people from the North-East?
There are approximately 20,000 individuals from the North-East who live in small pockets in areas like Colaba, Kalina, Malad, Goregaon, Andheri and Navi Mumbai. Most of them stay as paying guests or in accommodation provided by the companies they work for. A lot of them are employed with hardware and software companies, the banking sector and multi-national companies; then there is the labour class which is mostly working with private security companies and there are many students who have come to study and envisage a better future for themselves. Besides, there is a sizeable population of girls who work in the hospitality sector.
What exactly is the problem there?
People from Bangladesh have been moving into the North-Eastern states for a while now, earlier it was in thousands, now it is in lakhs. Economic prospects in the region have always been low, and as such, the area depends mostly on agriculture alone and has very few industries or companies. Even after assurances by ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the situation has not improved much in these states, which is partly why people from the North-East go to other parts of the country in search for jobs.
As a result of these factors, there is fierce competition between the Bodos and the newly-migrated Bangladeshis. The Bodos are an ethnic and linguistic community that earlier led a tribal way of life, and are the original inhabitants of the region. However, Bangladeshi migrants have been encroaching upon their land, which has fuelled tensions in the region, eventually culminating in the blood-letting we saw in Assam last month. It is a misconception that these were riots between Hindus and Muslims. The violence was actually between the native people of the region and the migrants from Bangladesh who had come into the area.
While the exodus of people to the North-East hasn’t stopped even after Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s assurances of providing security, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Saturday announced a reward of up to Rs.1 lakh for credible information on those who unleashed the violence which has engulfed Assam.