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New Delhi - The anonymous SMS message on Bhumidhar Das’s cellphone was chilling: “Muslims will attack and kill our people after Ramadaan. Return home.”
Within hours, Das, a Hindu working in the city of Pune, joined tens of thousands of fellow migrant workers returning to home towns in the remote north-east after getting or hearing of similar messages.
Nearly 90 people have been killed and 400 000 displaced in fighting between Muslims and mostly Hindu Bodo tribesmen in north-eastern Assam state in recent weeks. On Saturday, five bodies were found in a paddy field in the district of Chirang and the bodies of two local traders were found in Dhemaji, a remote district in eastern Assam. Officials said this was a sign that the violence was spreading.
The mass flight was sparked by rumours that Muslims, a big minority in predominantly Hindu India, were seeking revenge for the Assam violence.
Normally, there is little fallout in the rest of India from bouts of violence in Assam, which borders Bangladesh and is one of seven states connected to the main bulk of the country by a “chicken neck” of land.
As India heads for national elections in 2014 amid a sharp slowdown in growth, religious politics, along with a loss of jobs and wealth, could be a key issue.
The state and other parts of the north-east are home to hundreds of tribes and ethnic groups. Violence usually stems from tribal rivalries, anger against Muslim settlers from Bangladesh or from insurgencies.
While religion-driven politics has taken a backseat in the last decade of India’s economic boom, there are signs Muslim discontent over the violence is spreading. While parties across the political spectrum have condemned the recent bloodshed in Assam, divisive rhetoric has come from all sides.
In India’s financial capital, Mumbai, massive protests by Muslims against events in Assam turned violent earlier this month, killing two people and wounding dozens. In Pune, the city where Das was working, students from the north-east were beaten. Unrest has also been reported in Lucknow and Allahabad in the north.
Rumours of Muslim retaliation swirled, with threats of attacks on north-east Indians carried on social media and SMSes. Last week, the government ordered internet service providers to block 309 webpages, images and links on sites including Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, news channel ABC of Australia and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.
The orders were an effort to halt the spread of inflammatory material and rumours that Muslims were planning to attack students and workers.
More than 30 000 migrants from the north-east working in cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad rushed in terror back to their homes.
Two of those fleeing were killed and nine were injured after they were pushed from a train.
In Assam, conflict between Bodo tribes and Muslims is not new. Feuding over land rights and political power has often erupted into blood-letting, the worst of which was in 1983 when about 3 000 people were massacred.
Bodos say Muslims are illegal settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Muslims say they are not illegal immigrants and that they are being marginalised by Bodos.
Over time, India’s two main political parties – the secular Congress, which rules the state as well as in New Delhi, and the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have sought to benefit from the conflict.
In Assam’s squalid displacement camps, hundreds of thousands of Bodos and Muslims languish, too fearful to return home after seeing their villages razed, possessions looted or neighbours shot or hacked to death.
Weeks after clashes broke out, convoys of paramilitary trucks still drive through the main roads in this lush rice-growing region. A night curfew remains in place.
Centuries of rule by medieval Muslim invaders drove a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, a suspicion that has only grown since the birth of Pakistan, which was carved from Muslim-majority areas of India in 1947.
About 170 million Muslims live in India. Many are disenchanted, their alienation partly fuelled by the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque by Hindu zealots in 1992 and communal riots in Gujarat state in 2002, when around 2 500 people, mostly Muslims, were hacked and burnt to death.
The BJP rose to prominence in the early 1990s on the back of a Hindu revivalist movement.
Its leaders led the demolition of the Babri Mosque.
Congress has often been accused of failing to protect Muslims, and a substantial portion of that vote has waned, going to new regional parties instead.
The Gujarat riots, however, saw the tide turn again in favour of Congress in the 2004 elections, as Muslims saw the party as the only one capable of stopping the BJP and its “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalist agenda.
Making up about 14 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, Muslims are the biggest minority group.
Their vote is critical in key swing states such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the north, West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south. – Reuters