The 50-paise terror campaign
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Ironically for India's tech hub, technology came to bite it in the back. SMS threats circulated in great waves. On social networks, doctored photos of bleeding limbs, bloody faces and videos with hazy faces made the rounds. Local television stations endlessly aired footage of the panic.
It is like nothing that tech-savvy and global Bangalore, India's IT hub, has ever seen. The government, the police and railway officials were taken completely by surprise as thousands of Bangalore residents of north-eastern origin started thronging the ticket counters and platforms at the city's railway stations, bus stations and even the airport. They all were frantic to take the first available means to return home. It was nothing short of an exodus.
Many young men and women were incoherent in their panic. They had heard from fellow north-easterners that, following the bloody violence in Assam and a spontaneous riot in Mumbai, they would be targeted next for vicious retaliatory attacks after the end of Ramzan early next week. Stories of initial warning attacks were being relayed by SMS, those departing said. They each had dozens of such text messages to show.
Api Raikhan, 23, a hairdresser, said she and her friends had received several warning messages asking them to leave. "I'm really scared," said Raikhan, a Manipuri who has worked in the city for four years. Fellow Manipuri Gladson Ningle, 24, a salesman at a sports store said he and his friends had shut themselves indoors for the past few days. They desperately wanted to return home but train seats were impossible to get and airfares to Dimapur were exorbitant.
The Karnataka government and the city police have been slow to respond. The home minister summoned student and community leaders a full day later but this delayed response did not stem the departures. Neither did the door-to-door canvassing by policemen in neighbourhoods populated by northeasterners help. Instead, north-easterners started fleeing Mangalore and Mysore too. Several additional trains to the Northeast could not clear the departing rush for several days. "Even at its worst, Bangalore has not been like this," said a befuddled Vincent D' Souza, Bangalore's deputy commissioner of police (intelligence).
The police were flummoxed as the usual incendiary triggers — a riot, an attack, a provocative statement — were conspicuously missing in the Bangalore exodus. Instead, the warnings spread mainly by SMS, the simplest of technologies. Within hours, an entire community of over 300,000 residents was consumed by panic. In perhaps a turning point for terrorism in India, mere rumour and gossip devoured a city. Who are the perpetrators of this campaign? The police floundered for an answer.
In the past decade, Bangalore has slowly transformed into India's America. If in the 1970s and 1980s, many Indians went West to study and seek their fortune, in post-liberalisation India, Bangalore emerged as that much-desired destination where many Indians, from every state and region, arrived to study and to carve out a career. Gradually, the city emerged as a destination for not just young tech workers but career seekers in varied fields, entrepreneurs, ambitious businessmen and a whole army of enterprising workers to support the new affluence.
Joining the rush from all corners, thousands of people from the north-eastern states too arrived in Bangalore and made it their home. The city's relaxed feel and its mild climate felt close to home for some. Its cosmopolitan atmosphere and commonplace use of English attracted others, a wide spectrum from the educated to the working class. So popular a destination is Bangalore that the Assam chief minister recently lobbied to set up an Assam Bhavan in the city.
With their pleasant demeanour, service-oriented attitude and graceful appearance, many north-easterners have slowly become an indispensable part of the city. They are the service backbone in many sectors. They are the housekeeping providers in Bangalore's technology parks. They are the security guards in many residential and office buildings. They are the serving staff in restaurants and sales assistants in many shopping malls. They are the beauticians and hairdressers in the city's spas and salons.
The mass departures left a gaping hole in the city. A restaurateur who runs a Chinese eatery on the prominent Church Street in the city's central business district said all his stewards had taken off. He was contemplating a temporary shut-down. Many apartment blocks and office high-rises in the city stood unguarded after the departure of their security guards. A beauty salon manager in Koramangala said his staff, consisting entirely of Manipuri women, was a no-show at work.
Sure, the fear will eventually subside in Bangalore. Economic reasons are a powerful, irresistible magnet to draw back those who have left the city. As Simanta Sharma, adviser to the Assam Society, said, "Those who have gone will return; their livelihood is entwined to Bangalore."
Then again, the situation would not have escalated to this if Karnataka had a strong government. The state is now on its third BJP chief minister in four years and, tragically, not one has distinguished himself for governing the state. Corruption and pathetic administration apart, incidents of moral policing, attacks on women and attacks on partying college students have marred the BJP's already dismal record and added to a feeling that the state is a rudderless ship. A 50-paise terrorism campaign could not have been so successful but for this anxiety-ridden setting.
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