Northeast Indians in Bangalore: aliens in their own land?

August 16, 2012

Irshad Hussain makes light of it. “I’m pretending to be a Jew from Bihar. They would not know what to make of that,” said the 27-year-old Assamese man, who works in Bangalore. Behind his humorous tone lies the fear of attack.

Rumours have been circulating that people from northeast India who live in Bangalore — nearly 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometres) — to the south, are about to be attacked en masse. This is because of violence that flared between Bodo tribes and Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in Assam in July.

About 75 people have been killed, and more than 400,000 people are crowded into filthy refugee camps. This fear was based largely on an August 11 protest organised by Muslim groups in Mumbai against the attacks.

Two people were killed and more than 50 injured in the protest. After that, the nearby city of Pune, known for its colleges, witnessed attacks against students and professionals from the Northeast as retaliation for the perceived violence against the Muslim community. It was people from Manipur, a state near Assam, who seemed to have borne the brunt of the attacks. Why?

The attackers apparently thought that Manipuris — many of whom have facial features that more closely resemble their neighbours in Myanmar and southeast Asia — were Assamese. In Bangalore, there is uneasiness among the many workers who have come to India’s information technology capital from the Northeast. Thousands of them have reportedly tried to flee the city, fearing violence against them.

On Wednesday, almost 6,000 people had booked tickets to Guwahati.”I am really scared seeing today’s newspapers,” said Deepa Medhi, 26, an Assamese woman who works at a public relations company in Bangalore.

“My parents (back home) are also scared, and are asking me to come (home) … As of now, I haven’t heard (of) any attack on (a) fellow northeasterner … I know it’s all rumours, but it’s better to play safe. You never know, riot and violence start from some minor spark.”

“I still feel it’s safe here,” said Diganta Choudhury, a 27-year-old Assamese software engineer in Bangalore, “I’ve heard some rumours, but no one has experienced any untoward incident that I know of. There are some MMS (text messages) doing rounds, but most of them are fake.”

This isn’t the first time that people have felt like aliens in their own land. In the 1960s, Maharashtra politician Bal Thackeray’s Marmik became a mouthpiece for a campaign against the growing influence of non-Marathis in Mumbai.

Thackeray built his political career threatening to drive south Indians out Maharashtra, home to Mumbai and the Marathis.

A few decades later, his nephew Raj Thackeray took aim at people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, whom he said were taking away jobs from Marathis. There were sporadic attacks in 2008 against the migrant population in Mumbai.

On October 27, 2008, a Bihari man, Rahul Raj, hijacked a bus in Mumbai and held 12 passengers hostage, protesting the attacks. The police shot and killed him.

Assam has also seen ethnic clashes in the past. In 2003, the banned separatist group United Liberation Front of Assam passed a diktat for all Biharis to leave the state. In the violence that followed, many Biharis were killed in Assam. In retaliation, Biharis attacked train passengers from Assam.

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