Hyderabad: Just about everything at Anupam Baruah's home in Siddique Nagar in the Cyberabad area of Hyderabad is packed. I ask why, and he shrugs his shoulders to indicate you never know when he will have to leave as well. The 29-year-old and his family are among the few who have not uttered the F word as yet. Flee. At the security office where he works, only he and his brother are still reporting for duty, the remaining 38 Assamese have stopped working.
"Not all of them have gone back home to Assam. Many have moved to other localities in Hyderabad. I am living in this locality for the last ten years and do not want to leave. Where will I go with my wife and child. But then I have to be prepared for the worst," Baruah said.
Baruah's wife Deepa is four months pregnant and taking no chances, he has asked his 8-year-old daughter Simantini not to go to school. He sold off the television set that he bought for Rs 6,000 at one-fifth the price and is scouting for a buyer for his Pulsar motorbike. The trigger he said, was an incident past midnight earlier this week, when he was returning home after work.
"I was stopped by two persons on a bike who told me, Ramzan ke baad yahan rahoge, to maroge." (If you stay here after Eid, you will be killed)," Baruah said.
As I talk with Baruah, a group of VHP activists walk in and make him wear a saffron scarf.
"Yeh aapki suraksha ke liye hai (this is for your protection)'' they said and assured nothing would happen to him or his family in Hyderabad. In fact, the activists are preparing an exhaustive list of people from Assam in the locality.
"They are our people. We need to take care of them," one of the activists told me. Just yesterday, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi and leaders from the MIM had visited the locality to make the same promise.
"I am not asking for protection from either Hindu or Muslim groups. The society I have been living in should protect me. Otherwise the police," said Baruah, wary of being used as a pawn by religious and political organisations, eager to spread to newer areas.
Interestingly, Baruah's home has a mosque and a temple as neighbours. And for the last 3-4 days, men in uniform have started occupying a room in a political party's office in between, providing security to the few who are not yet in the `Quit Hyderabad' mode.
Owaisi said most Assamese talk of how Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has asked everyone to return home by 20 August or risk being targetted in cities outside Assam.
"Obviously he has not issued any such statement but this rumour has spread like wildfire, creating panic all around. Fear has gripped the entire community and we need to address it urgently," he said.
The fear was much more visible at Bangalore railway station on the night of India's Independence Day. With over 6800 tickets booked, two special trains had to be commissioned to ferry the passengers to Guwahati. Karnataka Home minister R Ashok rushed to the railway station to tell the scared Assamese that they will be safe but the pleas did not quite work. The mischief in Bangalore, when you talk to people, you realise is a chain SMS that again pits one community against the other and warns of attacks after 20 August.
And how did the government react? Sushilkumar Shinde, instead of assuring them of safety and enforcing the rule of law against nameless and faceless rumour mongers, says, if need be, the government will arrange for more trains. He could well be shouting bhaago bhaago (run run). Nothing conveys the sense of lack of governance more and one can only wonder how Mr Shinde served in the police force earlier.
Shinde, the right hand, however does not know what left hand RK Singh, the Union Home Secretary is saying. Singh scoffed at the rumours and said some people are spreading them. "There has been no incident. Full stop," he said with a stern look.
If looks could kill, that look might have killed all problems that India faces.
On the ground, this forced exodus has created huge problems. Amarnath Choudhary, president of the Andhra Pradesh Private Security Association and Director of Agile Security Services, said that of the 800-odd people from Assam who are employed as security guards and supervisors in his firm, 680 have left for their home states. Four security agencies in the Hi-tec city IT area of Hyderabad say over 1,100 security guards are off duty since Monday.
Many Oriyas, Assamese, Bengalis and Biharis say their relatives back home are worried for them and keep making phone calls, assuming violence has broken out in Hyderabad and Bangalore.
Life isn't easy for those who have chosen to stay back. Baruah and his family shared the house with another family that has left Hyderabad. Now he has to move as he cannot afford to pay Rs 6,000 rent for the house alone. His neighbours, a group of migrant bachelors, are in the same situation. Of the five, three have moved out, which means the remaining two have to either get three new roommates or leave Siddique Nagar.
Police officers say this episode has opened their eyes to the potential mischief that rumours fuelled by a cocktail of text messages, social media and mainstream media can cause. It has exposed the nervous face of the numerically weak in a metropolitian city. As the investigation into the whodunit begins, the police are certain this is likely to have connections all the way from Assam to Mumbai to Hyderabad and Bangalore. The idea was perhaps to challenge the idea of India on or around August 15. Too many questions, very few answers.
(names have been changed to protect identities)
(TS Sudhir is author of Badminton champion Saina Nehwal's first biography `Saina Nehwal : An Inspirational Biography')