NEW DELHI — Hundreds of thousands of young people from India’s remote and restive northeast have flocked to boomtowns such as Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai and New Delhi over the past decade to study or to work in hotels, restaurants, airline services and other niches in India’s fast-growing services sector.
But in recent days, thousands of those young migrants have joined a mass exodus for the perceived security of home, amid swirling rumors of imminent attacks on them in retaliation for the displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims in ethnic violence in the tea-growing northeastern state of Assam.
The mass panic attack — which has forced the government to add special trains to deal with the rush of travelers — has shone a rare spotlight on the alienation of India’s northeast, a patchwork of tribes and ethnic groups who are more akin culturally, and in terms of appearance, to Southeast Asians and have long felt themselves apart from the rest of India.
“If you think of it in terms of explosion, the buildup has been going on for a long time,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the founder of Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, of the exodus. “People from the northeast have always been outsiders in India’s cities. Very deep down, there is a sense that we are not protected by society at large and the state in particular.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to calm the migrants Friday, pledging that their safety would be a top priority.
“What is at stake is the unity of our country. What is at stake is communal harmony,” he told Parliament. “We will do our utmost to ensure that our friends and our children and our citizens from the northeast feel secure in any and every part of the country.”
The government also announced a two-week ban on mass cellphone text and multimedia messages to prevent the circulation of rumors — and inflammatory clips of anti-Muslim violence — that had ignited tensions.
But Madhu Chandra, a spokesman for the North East Support Center and Helpline, said northeasterners’ experiences of violent conflict in their home region, as well as persistent discrimination elsewhere in India, meant they would remain wary.
“All northeast people have lost their trust in the law-enforcement agencies,” he said. “They know they won’t be protected the way they would if they were from other communities.”
Connected to mainland India by a sliver of land known as “the chicken’s neck,” the northeast, a collection of eight small states that are home to about 42 million people, has a long history of separatist insurgency and internecine conflict.
As result, the region — known largely for its tea, as well as its potential in hydropower and oil — has been little touched by the economic boom that has transformed other parts of India.
It remains one of the least industrialized areas of the country, pushing many young people to leave home in search of education and jobs.
In the latest round of bloodshed, members of a tribal group known as Bodos, who are mainly Hindus, have clashed with members of the Muslim minority, resulting in at least 80 people killed and 400,000 displaced.
But unlike most trouble in the northeast, which barely registers in the national discourse, the recent bloodshed in Assam has had national repercussions.
Last week, in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, two people were killed and dozens injured when a mass protest by Muslims against the bloodshed in Assam turned into a violent riot.
Meanwhile, 10 northeastern students in the engineering hub of Pune were badly beaten, allegedly by Muslim teenagers inflamed by violent video clips purporting to show attacks on Muslims in Assam.
The unexplained stabbing in Mysore of a Tibetan student — Tibetans share the features of many northeasterners — suddenly made the prospect of attacks on northeasterners appear plausible.
Although New Delhi officials are frantically investigating who has been circulating the inflammatory videos, Loitongbam says the government must also take stock of why northeasterners feel so ill at ease in the Indian heartland.
“Because of being Chinese-looking and the possibility of disloyalty to the country, we have to constantly prove that we are not violent, troublemakers or anti-national,” he said.
Rock Lungleng, a law student in Pune and the coordinator of a community forum for northeastern students, said the panic in Pune was subsiding, though tension remained and many from the region still felt uncomfortable.
“We can coexist,” he said. “But there is still a long way to go before we come to the point where we are all one.”