New Delhi: The ethnic conflict between Bodo tribals and Muslims in Assam threatened to spill over to the rest of the country as many thousands of people belonging to the north-eastern states thronged railway stations in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad as they tried to flee back home, traumatized by fears they would be targeted for attack.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued an appeal for calm. “We have to maintain peace at any cost," he said late on Thursday evening.

Amid the calls for peace by the Union and state governments, there was fresh violence in lower Assam on Thursday. While there have been public assurances by the home and other Union ministers that there was no need to panic, the home ministry issued an advisory to all states that have a considerable presence of people from the north-eastern states to ensure their safety.

“There is no threat to the people of the North-East in any part of the country," Union home secretary R.K. Singh said in Delhi.

Prime Minister Singh and Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde spoke to Jagadish Shettar, chief minister of Karnataka, from where around 5,000 people have already left by trains and flights after rumours that they would be attacked in a backlash to the violence in Assam. Another 2,000 were estimated to be trying to leave the state on Thursday.

In the ethnic clashes that began on 6 July in the Kokrajhar, Chirang and Bhuri districts of Assam and spread in subsequent days, 77 people have been killed and more than 400,000 people have been displaced, according to official records. On 12 August, protests organized by a Muslim group in Mumbai against the clashes turned violent, leading to the death of two people. In Bangalore, a Tibetan student was allegedly stabbed after being mistaken for someone from the North-East. There have been attacks on people, including students, from the North-East in Pune over the last few days.

On Thursday, the stream of people from the North-East arriving at Bangalore’s main railway station continued to swell through the day despite assurances by the Centre, Karnataka and Assamese governments that there was no need to flee. South Western Railway announced it would try to provide additional trains for passengers to north-eastern destinations. On Wednesday, the railways operated two special trains after nearly 5,000 tickets were booked to these areas.

Karnataka law minister S. Suresh Kumar arrived at the station on Thursday morning to assure people that no incidents of violence had been reported in the city and that police protection would be given to those who wanted it.

“We are here to give confidence to our friends from the North-East. There are some rumours going around, but we have asked the police to take the rumour-mongers into custody," he said.

Some of those rumours referred to stabbings in the city, while others referred to a communal clash in Myanmar.

Some officials in the Union government said there were indications that the violence may flare up again after the end of the fasting month of Ramzan next week.

“Adequate security will be provided," said a senior government official who didn’t want to be identified. “As of now, 180 companies of central paramilitary forces and 39 battalions of state police are already present in the state. The army is also deployed in Assam."

Most of the people seeking to leave said they had no direct experience of a threat or violence against them.

Raja Boro, a 20-year-old from Assam who works in a multinational company, said he decided to leave along with nearly 80 people who stay in his apartment complex in south Bangalore till the situation improved.

Twenty people from 10 different associations, including the North East States Students Association, met Karnataka chief minister Shettar on Thursday and presented a list of cases for him to examine. Monika Khangembam, who heads a group founded to look into atrocities against north-eastern students, presented 25 cases of attacks against north-eastern students in Bangalore. All the cases given to the chief minister took place after the incident in Mumbai on Sunday, Khangembam said.

Shettar told the group that the state would assure full protection to people from the North-East, including the student community and the working class. “Karnataka is safer than Assam and, therefore, I appeal to the panicked people of north-eastern states to stay back in Karnataka," he said.

At the city’s railway station, police were accompanied by volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. These groups set up helplines and information desks, provided food and water, and staged a series of marches inside the railway station asking the people to stay back. Pramod Mutalik, chief of the Rashtriya Hindu Sena, also made a brief appearance, and asked the north-easterners to stay back.

The home ministry advisories sent earlier this week expressed concern over the increasing sense of insecurity “with a perception that there may be untoward incident targeting them".

One said, “Reports have indicated about possibility of some Bodo boys and girls returning from Kerala. Their return to the respective home may further escalate tensions between Bodos and minority communities in Assam."

Another advisory pointed out that the people of the North-East had been subjected to assault in some areas of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The Union government on Thursday sent a fresh advisory asking the chief ministers of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to hold peace meetings with all groups on the lines of one held in Karnataka.

According to a top official in the home ministry, the Centre has asked the state governments and the railways to provide security to 375 Bodos travelling from Andhra Pradesh to Guwahati by train.

The home ministry had alerted states about possible violence even before the Mumbai clashes. It said Muslim leaders should be briefed about the “action taken by the government to control the situation in Assam". Mint has reviewed a copy of this note.

In Guwahati, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi urged people not to rush back to their home states. Union minister M. Veerappa Moily, belonging to Karnataka, termed the developments “unfortunate". He said, “Karnataka belongs to all who are living there. Nobody should panic or succumb to the rumour-mongering."

North-easterners from other states also travelled to Bangalore to catch trains back home. Manoj Narjari, a 26-year-old from Assam who works as a security guard in Thalassery, Kerala, said he came to Bangalore four days ago along with 10 others after he was threatened by his employer. “He seized my belongings when I told him I wanted to leave," Narjari said.

A 20-year-old student from Darjeeling told state law minister Kumar that he decided to leave after a friend of his was slashed on the arm by two people late on Wednesday night. “We complained to the police, but the police officer refused to take the complaint," the student said. Kumar said action will be taken against the officer who refused to take the complaint.

Members of Parliament (MPs) from north-eastern states submitted a memorandum to home minister Shinde seeking his “immediate intervention" in the “horrific incidence of backlash against north-eastern students" in Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and other cities. The MPs also met Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar to apprise her of the developments.

The governments had failed to protect the north-eastern communities, said Madhu Chandra, who runs a volunteer organization for people from those states in the national capital. “Sending them back home is not the solution," Chandra said. “The state and central governments must provide protection to the communities. The people from North-East India are the citizens of this country, who must be treated equally before the law of the land."

A large number of students and people working in cities such as Pune, Nashik and Mumbai belonging to the North-East joined the exodus to their home states. A student from the North-East studying in Pune told Marathi news channel ABP Maza, “They are leaving as their parents are insisting they should come back immediately."

Pune police have so far arrested 13 people over the attacks on the north-eastern students.

“We have told all unit commanders...they should hold a meeting with citizens and students, and assure them that the state government will take all necessary steps to protect them and there is no need to panic," said Satyapal Singh, additional director general (law and order) Maharashtra Police.

The unit commanders have been told to meet leaders of the Muslim community and ask them to issue an appeal for restraint to youths from their community and not to fall prey to morphed multimedia message clips circulated through mobile phones or posted on social networking sites, Singh added.

He also said that except for two students in Nashik, no one had complained about receiving threats. “Those with whom we have spoken are saying that they are going back as their parents are insisting that they should return home," he said.

Central Railway has decided to attach an extra coach to two trains that leave from Mumbai for the North-East.

The exodus is shameful, Maharashtra BJP spokesman Madhav Bhandari said. Despite knowing who is behind the threats, the state and Union governments are not taking any action because of votebank politics, he said.

The panic also saw people from the North-East trying to get out of Hyderabad. Hyderabad is home to around 10,000 people from the North-East, according to Sarbeshwar Sahariah, ex-president of the Hyderabad Assamese Association.

“People are getting scared and are running away. Nobody knows what is happening," Sahariah said.

On Saturday, security guard Milal Saiki, 21, was assaulted by three persons in the Rayadurgam area of Hyderabad.

But “the incident was not a trigger", said Dwaraka Tirumala Rao, Cyberabad commissioner of police. “Some of them have left because of parental pressure, and some because of rumours. There is no threat as such. We are investigating the source of the rumours."

News reports appear to have panicked many north-easterners. “I am going away for a month," said Amit Saikhya, a security guard at the Sony showroom in the Panjagutta area of Hyderabad. Saikhya, who was waiting to board a train at Secunderabad railway station on Thursday evening, said no one had threatened him, but he grew alarmed after reading newspaper reports and was leaving for his village bordering the Kaziranga National Park. Saikhya said many of his friends were also leaving the city. A majority of Saikhya’s friends work as security guards at shopping malls, showrooms, apartment complexes and information technology company offices in the city. Some also work as waiters at bars and restaurants in the city.

Ten percent, or about 30,000 of the 300,000, security guards in Andhra Pradesh hail from the North-East, according to the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Central Association of Private Security Industry (Capsi).

The sudden exodus of guards has created a crisis among private security firms in Hyderabad. “We have been facing problems for the last five days. This situation is likely to continue till 22-23 August," said C. Bhaskar Reddy, chairman of the Capsi state unit.

There has been no advisory from the state government so far, but the Hyderabad Assamese Association is in touch with the government and has met top police officials to discuss the situation. A senior government official from Assam is arriving in Hyderabad on Friday to study the situation, Sahariah said.

Police has posted pickets in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, and stepped up security in areas where there is a larger concentration of people from the North-East to build confidence, commissioner Tirumala Rao said. The police department is reaching out to people through the security agencies that employ them and through the media. It has also set up a helpline number.

sahil.m@livemint.com

Pavitra Jayaraman and Rahul Chandran in Bangalore, Yogendra Kalavalapalli in Hyderabad and Makarand Gadgil in Mumbai, and PTI contributed to this story.

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