Guwahati: With trepidation and hope that things would be back to normal, people from the northeast of India who fled cities like Bangalore and Pune, centres of information technology and education, fearing violence after inter-community clashes in Assam have started returning to work. What was an exodus with thousands of people - one of the largest in recent times within a country - leaving their jobs and educational institutes is being reversed - albeit slowly - as workers and students leave home again in groups big and small to get back.
The exodus made international news and raised renewed fears of rupture in India's mutlifaceted social mosaic. While a special train arranged by the Assam government left for Bangalore Sept 1, another train is expected to leave Guwahati on Sept 8. Others are taking normal trains to resume lives in cities they have made their homes for years. But there is no major rush at railway stations yet.
"I am planning to return as there is nothing to do here," Binay Gogoi of Dhemaji district in Assam told IANS. "I looked for jobs in Guwahati after I returned from Bangalore. There are some opportunities but salaries are poor here," he said. Gogoi worked as a security guard at a mall in Bangalore and returned to his house in Dhemaji along with thousands of others last month. The eldest son in the family, Gogoi takes care of a family of five. "I have heard from some of my colleagues who had stayed back that the company is going to reinstate those who fled. It's better to go back early since I have to go back anyway," he said.
While there were some students and workers from Manipur and Nagaland in the first special train that left Guwahati, most passengers were from Assam. It is still not clear just how many fled places like Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and other cities following rumours that people from the northeast would be targeted for the attacks on Muslims in Assam. The exodus from the southern states began Aug 15 after rumours went viral through internet, SMS and MMS threatening people to return to their states before Aug 20 or face dire consequences. India later blamed Pakistan-based Islamist groups for the messages from unknown mobile numbers.
Eventually, some thousands fled to the northeast, packing trains. The worst hit were Pune and Bangalore. Most people who left were poorly paid workers. The state governments made efforts to reassure people that they were safe. But clearly, the rush to go back is yet to pick up. Northeast Frontier Railway spokesperson Jayanta Sarma said bookings in many of the south-bound trains from Guwahati are still open.
The Guwahati-Bangalore Express left some days ago from here with 299 vacant seats in the sleeper class. Similarly, many seats are still vacant in other south-bound trains like Dibrugarh-Yeswantpur Express, Guwahati-Chennai Express, Guwahati-Ernakulam Express, Guwahati-Thiruvananthapuram Express and Guwahati-Secunderabad Express scheduled for departure on many days till Sep 15.
Yet, the railways plan to run a second special train between Guwahati and Bangalore Sep 8 because of a request from the Assam government, the official said. Besides the special trains, seven trains depart from Guwahati for southern India every week.
Some who fled appear to be still apprehensive about returning to southern India. Others like Nayan Moni Deka of Morigaon feel it was a mistake to have panicked and returned to Assam. "There are no job opportunities here and so I must go back. Sometimes I feel that we had taken a hasty decision to return home, and that we should have stayed back," Deka said.
In contrast to a quarter century ago, tens of thousands of people from the northeast today study, work and live in northern, western and southern India. Last month's rumours caused no panic in north India.