NEW DELHI — India’s prime minister extended assurances of safety to thousands of migrants from the northeast who are fleeing cities in the country’s south and west. The exodus has been triggered by rumors of reprisal attacks by Muslims following ethnic unrest in the northeastern state of Assam and in neighboring Burma.
Manmohan Singh said in parliament Friday that the recent ethnic violence in Assam should not be used to create an environment of insecurity for migrants from the northeast.
"What is at stake is the unity, integrity of our country, what is at stake is communal harmony and it is the solemn obligation of all us regardless of the party to get together, to create an atmosphere when this rumor mongering will come to an end, that the people of the northeastern states feel genuinely that any part of our country welcomes them," he said.
The Indian leader’s appeal came as workers and students from the northeast flooded rail stations in cities across the west and the south to make a long journey back home.
The exodus began in the southern technology hub of Bangalore on Thursday. By Friday it had spread to several other cities such as Mumbai and Pune in the west and Hyderabad in the south.
Officials say panic has been created by rumors spread through text messages and social media threatening revenge attacks by Muslims against migrants from the northeast. The rumors began to circulate after two people were killed in a Muslim-led protest in Mumbai last week.
Muslims have been angered by clashes which erupted three weeks ago between Muslim settlers and the indigenous Bodo community in Assam. Some 75 people died and tens of thousands became homeless. The clashes have subsided, but tensions are still simmering.
The violence that swept western Burma in June between Buddhists and Muslims has also fueled the anger.
In the affected Indian cities, officials have been assuring the northeastern community that they will be safe. The government has banned bulk text and multimedia messaging for a fortnight to stem the rumors. Police patrolling has been intensified. But that has failed to stem the panic.
Raju Kumar is among scores of migrants from the northeast in Mumbai waiting at a rail station to take a train home.
Kumar says when we go out at night, then the Muslims threaten us by saying that they will cut us into pieces. He says he is scared.
Tens of thousands of people from Assam work outside their region, which is poor and underdeveloped.
Opposition parties joined the prime minister in parliament in appealing for calm.
Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said, "Their presence in various parts of the country in fact promotes national unity and integrity. And therefore a situation like this, where a fear psychosis is created amongst them and some of the have to move back to their state in a state of panic is a challenge which each one of us faces."
Assam has long been a flashpoint for violence between indigenous communities and Muslim settlers, who have migrated from Bangladesh. India is prone to communal violence, but ethnic unrest in the northeast has seldom had repercussions outside the region.