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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Persecution of Assam's Hindi speakers
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Guwahati, Assam

Hindi speaking migrants preparing to leave for Bihar
There has been a mass exodus of Hindi-speaking migrants (All pics by Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

Hindi-speaking migrants have started fleeing India's north-eastern state of Assam again after a week of massacres and bomb attacks left nine dead and more than 20 injured.

Separatists of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) were blamed for the nearly 10 explosions in the third week of May, when attacks on migrants resumed in the northern districts of Dibrugarh and Sibsagar after a lull of three months.

Then followed a spate of bombings stretching from the far northern district of Tinsukia to the western district of Bongaigaon.

"I am going back to Bihar with my family," says Ram Khilavan, hit by shrapnel in a bomb attack in Guwahati's busy Fancy Bazaar.

SP Rai, secretary of Northeast Hindi-speakers Forum
The exodus was beginning to abate but has picked up again after the recent violence
SP Rai, secretary of North-East Hindi-speakers Forum

"Life is more important than livelihood," he said.

"If I don't get work in Bihar, maybe I will go to Delhi or Punjab," said Mr Khilavan, as he waits for a train in the railway station in the state capital, Guwahati.

The North-East Hindi-speakers Forum (Purbottar Hindustani Sammelan) says the exodus of Hindi-speakers has picked up again after the attacks in May.

"At least 100,000 Hindi-speaking migrants have fled the state so far since the massive attacks in January.

"The exodus was beginning to abate but has picked up again after the recent violence," says the forum's secretary, SP Rai.

'Shortage of force'

The Assam government says the claim is exaggerated, but admits that thousands of Hindi-speaking migrants have left the state since January, when Ulfa attacks started in the northern districts.

But Ravi Shankar Ravi, editor of Guwahati's leading Hindi daily "Dainik Purvoday", says those who have fled are mostly seasonal labourers.

"I am not aware of long-settled migrants leaving Assam even after the violence. For them, this is their home, they have adopted the Assamese way of life. Those who have fled are seasonal labourers," said Mr Ravi.

Injured man being treated after the Fancy Bazaar explosion
There has been a spate of bombings recently

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi blamed his government's failure to prevent the attacks on "an acute shortage of force".

He said an additional 4,000 paramilitary troops had been sought to guard Hindi-speaking migrants where they were concentrated in greatest numbers.

"Otherwise we have to take away troops from proactive, offensive operations against Ulfa. But this is exactly what Ulfa wants when they attack the soft targets," the chief minister said.

Assam police chief RN Mathur said Ulfa had suffered heavy reverses in recent weeks - more than 50 rebels have been killed or captured, including some top leaders of the group's military wing.

"That is why they have started attacking the Hindi-speaking migrants again," said Mr Mathur.

The largest exodus has been reported from the districts of Upper Assam - Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar and Golaghat - where Ulfa militants killed nearly 80 Hindi-speaking migrants in January.

The recent killings also took place in these districts.

But it is the bomb attacks that have created most fear and public anger.

When a bomb exploded in Guwahati's Fancy Bazaar on 18 May, angry Hindi-speaking migrants pelted the police with stones and shouted slogans against the Assam government.

The police used canes and tear gas to break up the protests.

'Blood and bombs'

"We are tense whenever we send our children to school or walk out for shopping. The bombs can go off any time," said Sunita Agarwal, a housewife at Fancy Bazaar, which has been bombed three times in recent months.

But the random bombings of locations like Fancy Bazaar have also upset the Assamese for other reasons.

Hindi-speaking women prepare to leave Assam
The authorities say that those leaving are temporary labourers

"If the Hindi-speaking migrants leave, the shortage of labour will be filled by the illegal migrants from Bangladesh. We cannot allow that to happen," says Sammujal Bhattacharya, chief adviser to the powerful All-Assam Students Union (AASU) that ran a campaign against illegal migrants in the 1980s.

Assamese school teacher Smita Mishra says the shopkeepers in Fancy Bazaar may be Hindi-speaking people, but the customers are mostly Assamese.

"The explosions can hit us any time. If the Ulfa has guts, let them take on the Indian army and attack corrupt politicians rather than poor labourers," she says, as she listens to a song by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala which talks of Assam as a land of love and laughter.

"Now it is a land of blood and bombs," said the angry school teacher, reminding the present generation of the huge contribution to Assam's culture and literature by the likes of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala who hailed from a Hindi-speaking family.

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