Howsoever intangible the source or origin of rumours, their effect on normal, everyday life can be devastatingly real. As students and workers from Assam and other north-eastern States flee south Indian cities fearing ethnically-targeted violence, India’s tenuous social fabric is once again under severe strain. Mysterious calls and text messages about impending attacks in retaliation for the violence against Muslims in Assam have spread panic among people from the northeast working or studying in south Indian cities. Apart from a handful of minor incidents in Bangalore, there was no violence on the ground there or in any south Indian city that saw thousands of people from the northeast quit jobs and leave their studies midway to return home. That rumours could set off such panic speaks to the sense of insecurity that the young migrants lived under. While people from the northeast had no difficulty in getting jobs and gaining admission to educational institutions in the south, they have discovered that their distinctive physical features always marked them out as outsiders. They filled a gap in the market economy, but found no social acceptance beyond their immediate environment. A few months ago, Richard Loitam, a student from Manipur, died under mysterious circumstances after he was assaulted by college mates over a trivial issue. Well before the current crisis, his death caught the headlines and unsettled migrants from the northeast in cosmopolitan Bangalore.

For all the technical means at their disposal, the authorities concerned do not appear to have expended much energy in trying to trace the source of this sinister rumour-mongering. Many of the SMSs circulating contain fabricated information about attacks by Muslims on people from the northeast, including killings, suggesting there are unknown individuals and groups out there actively trying to create panic and drive a wedge between these two minority groups. The intelligence agencies must spare no effort to identify these elements. Reassurances of security aside, what the panic-stricken people need are immediate, evident steps on the ground that enhance security and ensure peace. Over the long-term, ‘mainland’ India needs to be more welcoming toward its fellow-citizens from the northeast. Discrimination and harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions can breed deep insecurity, which could then, at the slightest trigger, lead to panic situations. There should be zero-tolerance of prejudice against ethnic or other minorities. This is the assurance with which every effort must be made to bring all those who have fled in the last 72 hours back to their homes, jobs and studies in the south.

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