Raghu Karnad in n+1:
There’s no picture more traumatic to the Indian imagination than that of thousands of people crammed into trains, fleeing for their lives. Flash back to 1947, when trains crossing between West Pakistan and north India steamed out of their stations filled with refugees and arrived at their destinations filled with corpses. The migrating dead were Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who—stranded on the wrong side of the religious partition of British India, learning that it was now open season on their community and property—took flight for the border. About a million never made it. So (sixty-five years ago to the day), as India awoke to sovereignty and democracy, the sight before its eyes was a snarl of minority terror, slaughter, and trains.
This was the image that much of India had to suppress, and a few provocateurs predictably stoked, on August 15 this year. It should have been another drowsy Independence Day, a mid-week chance to sleep in while the monsoon shook the last drops out of its watering-can. Instead, at Bangalore’s City Station, thousands of people pressed into emergency trains leaving for distant Guwahati, the latter a transport hub for the seven small states in India’s out-flung northeastern limb.
Most of the indigenous groups in that region (“Northeasterners” to the rest of us) have facial features and skin-tones that make them look more like South-East Asians than what we think of as Indians—a matter they’re rarely allowed to forget when they live away from home. In recent weeks, two situations had set the dismal categories of “Muslims” and “Northeasterners” (or in the nasty demotic, “chinkies”) against each other. First, there was a spike in the decades-old persecution of Muslim Rohingyas by the Burmese-majority state of Myanmar. Shortly afterward, violence flared up between indigenous Bodo and migrant Muslim communities in Assam, the largest of the northeastern states, which led to Muslim groups agitating in cities like Bombay. Eventually, in Bangalore, tales of Muslim rage quivered with hyperbole. Skull-capped goons were banging on doors, warning that when Ramadan ended, the blood of Northeasterners would mingle in the streets with blood of the goats. By Independence Day, thousands were crammed into trains, apparently fleeing for their lives.
In the American vision of urban apocalypse, Hope and Doom ride in cars: orders to evacuate lead to a grid-lock on the interstate (in one car, the hero’s wife and daughter are in danger). India doesn’t have enough highway to serve widespread terror; our Horsemen ride the trains.