3 years


The Exodus

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As Northeasterners flee, aboard the Bangalore-Guwahati Special

Assin Nath is uncomfortable. Sharing an aisle seat on one of the special trains run by the South Western Railways between Bangalore and Guwahati with someone “he just met at the station”, he sits with his shoulders hunched, head hanging down, and feet pressed hard against the opposite berth to keep his balance. “I should have listened to my mother,” mutters the 21-year-old periodically. “She told me not to come here.”

Two months ago, Nath had rebelled. In a heated family discussion at home in Sibsagar district of Assam, his mother had lost the argument and agreed to let him take the Guwahati Express to Bangalore to work as a waiter at a restaurant. The three-day journey then had been full of possibility, but the three-day journey that began at 8 pm from Platform 4 of Bangalore City Station on 16 August was full of apprehension.

“I don’t think she’ll let me come back here,” he says softly as the train leaves the uncertainty of Bangalore behind and moves towards the Tamil Nadu border. “Not even to collect the salary I have left behind or the deposit with my landlord. I came to see Bangalore and earn well. Instead, I am heading back because somebody, somewhere in the city doesn’t like the fact that I am from the Northeast.”

A guffaw from the next seat forces him to look up. Heads are bent over a mobile phone belting out Divya Bharti’s hit song Saat Samundar Paar from the 1991film Vishwatma. As the train picks up speed, the anxious hours spent queuing up for a ticket and waiting on the platform for the train give way to relief. A few feet tap, someone hums along, but Nath can’t shake off his gloom.

The feeling first made its presence felt when he heard about the ire vented in Mumbai against Northeasterners in the wake of the Bodo-Muslim violence in Assam. It grew stronger when he caught snatches of whispers about Northeastern residents in Ashok Nagar, Neelasandra, JP Nagar, Nagwara, Audogodi, Shivaji Nagar and other parts of the city being waylaid, threatened and asked to leave. And it refused to go away after a friend showed him an SMS that said that if they wanted to see the daylight of 21 August, they should leave the city before the 20th. Nath has been glum ever since. 

It all happened in less than a week. For the 400,000-plus people of Bangalore from the Northeast, 15 August was a rude shock. It took away their independence to live and work in a place of their choice. Whether they were beauticians sought after for their professionalism in beauty parlours, well-behaved security guards posted outside buildings, polite waiters attending to diners at restaurants, sincere workers at factories, or qualified professionals in assorted offices, they found themselves clubbed together as Northeasterners—and they suddenly had no option. News and rumours got mixed up, and on the morning of 15 August, suitcases were stuffed with essentials, houses hurriedly locked, and they thronged to Bangalore City Station.

Dr Simanta Sharma was at work when he first heard of a group of people accosting two girls on their way back from work and threatening them with dire consequences if they didn’t leave the city within 24 hours. This was on 14 August. A senior professional working in the healthcare sector and an advisor to the Assam Society of Bangalore, Sharma dismissed it as a one-off incident.

Then he saw the SMS. “It was chilling,” he recalls, “When Mumbai happened, we didn’t expect it to snowball. The whole thing was completely out of the blue and caught everyone unawares. I don’t feel threatened and I am not leaving, but a young 20-year-old so far away from home will. They want a guarantee that nothing will happen to them. Nobody has been able to give them that. People need to understand that.”

About a fourth of those from the Northeast who have made Bangalore their home are Assamese. To mark their presence and organise cultural events, an Assam Bhavan is under construction in Raja Rajeshwari Nagar, some 20 km from the railway station.

Bangalore, like Pune, attracts large numbers of college and university students from the Northeast. But unlike other cities, Bangalore also draws lots of job seekers from the region for the simple reason that “salaries are much better”. 

That is what drew Nath to the city and is also what made 22-year-old Achyut Gogoi leave his job in Tirupur in Tamil Nadu and work instead as a security guard at Shashi Detective Services in Bangalore’s Rajaji Nagar. The Rs 8,300 salary he takes home, after provident fund deductions, is the best money he has ever made. And after paying the Rs 2,000 rent and keeping Rs 1,000 aside as “pocket money”, he manages to send a steady stream of cash home. “You know, Nath and me are from the same district and didn’t even know each other till a while ago,” says the 22-year-old as the train crosses Krishnarajapuram station. “We are all heading in the same direction, leaving because of the same rumours, and yet we are all strangers. Besides the few friends we have each boarded this train with, we don’t know anyone else. Maybe if we did, we would not have felt so isolated and not had to leave like this. Maybe we shouldn’t be leaving like this.”

In fact, about six hours earlier, this thought hadn’t crossed Gogoi’s mind. Six hours earlier, for the thousands of mainly Assamese passengers swarming into Bangalore City Station on a warm Thurs- day afternoon, not going was not an option. Nervously chewing gum and constantly on the phone, they were thinking only about getting out of the city.

Karnataka’s Law Minister S Suresh Kumar tried to change their mind and reassure them that the inherent isolation of big city life was not reason enough to leave. He even camped at the station, joined by Assam’s Agriculture Minister Nilamoni Sen Deka and Transport Minister Chandan Brahma a day later, trying to talk to whoever would listen. And they did stop, briefly, to listen. But when the minister was done with his ‘We are with you’ and ‘Don’t leave’ talk, they bent down, picked up their baggage and made their way to platform 4.

“Today I have realised the power of rumours,” the minister said with a resigned air, admitting that nothing would stop the exodus that began on Indepen- dence Day.

Manjit Basumatari waited impatiently for his friends at the entrance of the station, his eyes darting from the minister to members of the ABVP and RSS trying to break ice with the nervous Northeasterners by offering them food. Unlike Nath, Basumatari wasn’t glum. He was fuming. “Nobody knows anything about what happened back home and look at the drama unfolding here,” he says, referring to the recent violence in Assam. A Bodo from Kokrajhar, he wants to talk and explain—to anyone who would care to listen.

The son of a government school teacher, Basumatari spent the last two years in Bangalore working in a pipe factory. “I have been working hard, saving, looking forward to going home later this year,” he says, “But so much has happened back home and here in Bangalore. Now there is only suspicion and a bad feeling. Rows of rooms where we stayed are now empty. Landlords are nervous about letting us stay. Every day we hear of a stray incident somewhere. We are not secure and we don’t feel secure.”

He firmly ties his handkerchief back on his face and scans his phone for new messages.  A Railway Police Force constable joins the conversation and wonders what all the fuss is about. The handkerchief is off again. “There are a lot of things that have happened in Assam over the years,” he tries to explain. The constable doesn’t get it. He tries again. “There are illegal migrants,” he says. “Not possible,” says the constable, “The borders are guarded well.” The handkerchief is back on and Basumatari walks away to platform 4.

He joins hundreds sitting on the platform waiting for the 8 pm special to arrive. Policemen have pushed the teeming crowds a few metres back from the edge of the platform and forced them to sit. Restless, they wait, constantly texting or talking on their phones.

“We love mobile phones,” Gogoi says, “That’s our indulgence here—and the threats came on them.” While social networking sites have put up long lists of dos and don’ts—advising people to avoid late nights and inform their landlords not to let any visitors in—most of it was lost on the young leaving Bangalore in droves. They were responding to threats much too direct to ignore. On their mobile phones. Like the emotional calls from home asking them to come back.

The warm afternoon has given way to a pleasant evening. A cool breeze blows across platform 4, soothing frayed nerves. The urgency of the afternoon has been replaced by a strange calm. And then a loud cheer erupts. The special train has arrived and the exodus begins. The policemen move back and the crowds surge aboard. Nath, Gogoi and Basumatari elbow their way in. 

In 10 minutes, the 20 unreserved bogies of the train are full.

Lucky Momin, a receptionist with Manipal Global, is one of the few women who have managed to board the train and also found place to sit in the cramped chair car. Security guard Pravin Gohai has not. “The next train maybe,” says the 48-year-old from Lakhimpur, an odd man out among all the under-30 passengers on board. He steps out of the train back onto the platform, which is again full of nervous energy as people await the next train a couple of hours later. A constable tries to persuade Gohai to board. He looks into the coach, says he can’t sit on the floor for three days, and decides to wait instead. 

The air inside the compartments is oppressive. Bodies squeeze against one another, miraculously creating just enough space for one more to fit in. Cellphones ring endlessly. “Yes, I have boarded,” voices assure anxious relatives and friends.

At 8 pm, the train pulls out. There is loud applause before the discomfort of the journey that has just begun sinks in. An ice-cream container is pulled out of an airbag and passed around. It has peanuts, devoured hungrily.

Shyam Neewar doesn’t want to eat. It’s been six years since the 23-year-old left his home in Baljuri in Assam’s Tinsukia district and moved to Bangalore. While his older brother picked up a job as a cook in a restaurant specialising in Kerala cuisine, Neewar joined System World in Nagwara. “We are not sure what is going on,” the Class X dropout admits, “This looks like a picnic. But it doesn’t feel that way. Home is where we all want to be right now, with our families.”

On the next berth, Gogoi keeps up the banter. “Sitting at home in our village [Najira], my mother knows nothing,” he says, smiling. “She doesn’t even know what happened in lower Assam. That’s how clueless she is. In fact, the local news there hasn’t even mentioned what is happening here. The only thing my mother knows is that I am coming home on leave. Maybe she is among the very few who are blissfully unaware.”

Crossing his legs, Gogoi launches into  a lesson in geography: “All the action was in lower Assam. Upper Assam, where my village is, doesn’t encounter any problems with Bangladeshi immigrants. In our region, we have a lot of people from Bihar.  And honestly, we cannot do without them. They do all the loading-unloading work, run the barber shops. If they weren’t there, no goods would ever be unloaded from trucks. We just wouldn’t do it ourselves.”

A look around the compartment reflects the conflicts within the community. For many, what happened in lower Assam was a localised problem that they have heard about for years. It doesn’t seem to justify such hurried departures. For Gogoi, an immigrant steps in where locals don’t. For Basumatari, it is about the changing demography of Kokrajhar.

Nearing midnight, the train chugs into Jolarpettai station. Even as policemen on the platform dissuade people from getting off the train, there is a sprint to the nearest water point on the deserted platform. Dozens of plastic bottles are filled with water and handed in through grilled windows. Special trains don’t have many stops, and the passengers know that. Hands stretch out of windows to catch the attention of a man promising hot coffee and a vendor selling his last few packets of egg biryani.

It is difficult to move inside the train. The passages are blocked, the doorways jammed with luggage, and the exhausted have fallen asleep near the entrance to toilets. Hands are constantly nudging feet away, shoulders shrugging sleepy heads off as the train moves on.

Five hours into the journey and the peanuts in the ice-cream container are nearly over, the egg biryani has been finished, and the chatter is slowly dying out. Slippers are taken off and tucked on top of fans, a pair of boots are tied up to the luggage rack, luggage is shifted around to make a little more leg room, and the lights are switched off slowly one after another. 

Achyut Gogoi is still awake. “I didn’t know there were so many Assamese in Bangalore,” he whispers. “Did you? Ban- galore station didn’t seem like Bangalore station, did it? Almost felt like home, except we’ve been told it isn’t.”