As the overcrowded train from Bangalore chugged into Guwahati railway station early on Saturday morning, the occupants let out a spontaneous scream.
More out of relief I think than joy.
After all they had traveled more than 56 hours in unreserved compartments in searing heat fleeing a perceived or real threat to their lives in states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
And arrived safely home.
Tired, unwashed and vaguely afraid, most of the young men (there were hardly any women on this train) worked as security guards, hotel, restaurant and hotel boys. Mostly leading a hand-to-mouth existence.
But at least they were fending for themselves without burdening their poor parents back home.
Some had spent over nine years in the Garden city; some just about six months. But all of them said physical and verbal abuse of some of their friends and panic calls from parents and families back home forced them to leave in haste. Most were hesitant to put a timeline for their return.
Some others were defiant.
A young security guard, Bikash who has spent over three years in Bangalore told me at the railway station: “We are Hindustanis, we have the right to stay to anywhere in the country. I will go back when situation is better.”
He won’t specify what is his definition of “better.”
Bikash and his friends who alighted from the train on Saturday morning with just one bag each, also could not put a finger on why, who and where the rumours of attacks on people from north-east, particularly Assam started. Some said they were stopped on the road and asked: “Are you from Assam?” That was enough to spark fear since Bikash and friends were watching riots in Kokrajhar on Assamese satellite channels and had heard rumours that Muslims were out to take revenge.
Others heard from friends that an sms had warned of “something” terribly wrong happening after Id on August 20. This was immediately after the Mumbai riots last Saturday.
Staying as they were in one closed group, hardly interacting with the rest of the cosmopolitan society in Bangalore or Hyderabad, the fear felt by a couple of these boys got immediately transmitted to the rest of the group inducing large-scale panic.
Absence of any social links with local residents because of the tendency to live in close-knit, cloistered groups, further aggravated the problem. As I wrote in Outlook in May this year in a different context: “Clan and ethnic loyalties often take precedence over regional identities. A larger community often discriminates against a smaller ethnic group. A surfeit of student groups and associations formed on tribal lines in most big cities bears testimony to this reality. All of them prefer to keep to themselves, trying to find protection in numbers.” With no one to counsel them or offer assurance, these boys started landing up at the railway station on the evening of 15th August.
As images of the huge rush started flashing on local channels in Karnataka, Assam channels picked up the news, feeding the frenzy back home, forcing anxious parents to call up children in panic. As Abhijit Miri told me: “My parents saw reports on TV and said come back. Money is not important.” When Abhijit said he was hopping on to the next available train, a couple of his his friends too decided to leave!
No amount of assurance by the government and allurement by the employers could keep these professional back in Bangalore or Hyderabad. All of them simply wanted to go back home even if for some days.
As national channels and newspapers picked up the story, the exodus got radiated to other cities too. In Pune, attacks on North easterners further added to the fear.
A clueless government initially blamed the social media and offending smses or mmses for the panic but later realised that the establishment was not reacting fast enough.
It took close to 48 hours for the Central government as well as state governments in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra to take a grip on the situation.
On Saturday afternoon, when I spoke with Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, he said: “Our desire is that they go back. We will arrange for special trains from here to southern states whenever they want.” Gogoi said he had spoken to all Chief Ministers, the Home Minister and the Prime Minister too. The government meanwhile has promised to track down those who triggered panic in the North-Eastern community in Bangalore and other cities by sending out threatening and incendiary messages.
As tempers cool down and the huge rush of returning migrants gets reduced to a trickle, a calmer rethink will prevail among all stake holders.
All those who have worked, studied and lived in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune or Chennai will certainly like to go back.; the service industry and employers in other sectors, heavily dependent on the north easterners would like them back at work as early as possible; the professionals would also like to restart their livelihood.
It is therefore incumbent on each one of us to ensure that life goes back to normal by ensuring that rumour mongers are meted out exemplary punishment and at the same time genuinely assuring north-east migrants that they are an integral part of idea that is India.
We owe this to ourselves.