Hundreds of Thousands Flee Their Homes in India Amid Deadly Ethnic Violence

Jim Yardley, MSNBC, August 18, 2012

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.

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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. {snip}

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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.

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