x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Singh vows to protect north-east migrants

Rumours, which started via text message, have been circulating that Muslim groups would retaliate for recent violence with the Bodo tribe.

NEW DELHI // India's prime minister yesterday promised to protect migrants from the north-east as they fled for a third day from cities in other parts of the country, afraid of being attacked.

Rumours, which started via text message, have been circulating that Muslim groups would attack people with distinctive north-eastern features, in retaliation for recent violence between the Bodo tribe and Muslims in the state of Assam.

This violence, in the district of Kokrajhar, has displaced more than 400,000 people and claimed at least 50 lives.

On Thursday, north-eastern Indians had crowded railway stations in the south Indian city of Bangalore, looking for a way home. By yesterday, similar alarm had spread to the cities of Chennai, Pune and Mumbai as well.

To curtail the panic, the government yesterday banned bulk text messaging for 15 days, ensuring that no mobile phone user could send out an SMS to more than five people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in parliament, said: "Whatever may have happened in Kokrajhar should not be used as an excuse to fan rumours… The country belongs to [the people of the north-east] as much as it belongs to others."

Mr Singh warned that "any miscreant fanning rumours [would] be brought to book".

About 3,000 labourers and students had thronged Chennai's main railway station on Thursday evening, many of them arriving from other towns in Tamil Nadu.

In Pune, local media reported that about 2,000 people - mostly students - had arrived at the railway station to catch trains back to the north-east.

In Bangalore, the leaders of Muslim groups blamed "mischief-mongers" for spreading rumours and assured their north-eastern compatriots of their good intentions.

"Desperate attempts are being made to tarnish the image of the Muslim community," Masood Abdul Khader, the convener of the Karnataka United Muslim Front, told The Hindu newspaper.

"All the mosques in the city are making appeals to local Muslims to inform the police immediately if they hear anything regarding any violence against people from the north-east."

Manohar Elavarthi, part of a civil society coalition in Bangalore that is trying to quell rumours, told The National that he had heard of one attack that took place yesterday morning.

"I'm very sad. Somebody from Darjeeling has been attacked," Mr Elavarthi said. "We feel the government isn't doing enough, the police isn't doing enough."

One of the organisations blamed for spreading text-message rumours is the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, a Hindu right-wing group that calls itself "a voice screaming to be heard" in "a nation infested with enemies and traitors".

On its Facebook page, the Sena wrote earlier this week: "Fatwa issued by Local Muslims to North East Brother's & Sister's to leave Bangalore till [August] 20 or ready for Riots." That post has since been removed.

There is a strong sense, Mr Elavarthi said, that the Sena and other organisations were "using this whole thing to work against the Muslims".

"The Sena is one of the people spreading these rumours, but nothing has been done, nobody has been arrested," he said.

"That is what is worrying us."