April 03, 2020
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Imagine There Is No Migrant

Anti-migrant biases aren’t limited to Gujarat. Such poor folk are targeted as ‘outsiders’ everywhere.

Imagine There Is No Migrant
A stream of workers line up for their train back at Ahmedabad station
Photograph by Getty Images
Imagine There Is No Migrant

It was a swim against the perennial high tide. When Shrenuj & Co Ltd set up a diamond cutting and polishing unit in Patna, bringing back 150 skilled workers from Gujarat to their home state in 2013, it raised a glimmer of hope among the teeming Bihari migrants settled elsewhere in the country. Launching a first-of-its-kind plant, the global diam­ond firm had promised to invest Rs 600 crore and hire 1,500 workers to meet its target of processing 3 lakh diamond pie­ces a month. Hailing the commissioning of the unit as a historic occasion heralding a brave new age of investm­ent, chief minister Nitish Kumar exu­lted that Biharis could finally ret­urn home for work from places like Surat.

Five years on, dreams of creating emp­loyment opportunities good eno­ugh for migrants to stay back have come unstuck. Faced with mounting losses, the diamond firm has shut shop; its workers are left to fend for themselves.

A reverse migration of sorts, however, did begin earlier this month from Gujarat, but for grossly unsavoury reasons. Tho­u­sands of terrified, often battered, migrant workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, UP and other north and central Indian states headed back home pell mell to escape the violence triggered by the rape of a 14-month-old toddler, allegedly by a migrant from Bihar, in Sabarkantha district on September 28. As a hate campaign against them was ratcheted up on social media and beyond, migrants had to bear the brunt of mob violence in several districts. The virulence of the attacks caught the Vijay Rupani government off guard. Even as a political blame game flared up, it indicated a disturbing pattern—migrants, as rank outsiders, were easy targets at their chosen workplace.

Alarmed at the steady stream pouring out of Gujarat in panic, Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi has appealed to Bihari workers not to leave Gujarat. “They should stay back as the Gujarat government has assured adequate security,” Sushil says in Patna. “An Indian citizen has the right to go anywhere in the country for his livelihood. If people from Bihar and Poorvanchal stop going to Gujarat and Punjab, farms and factories there will suffer.”

Noting that the worst of the violence had passed, the BJP leader asserted that Amarjit Singh, a 32-year-old Bihari living in Surat, had died in a road accident, and not in mob violence, as rumo­urs had suggested, and as Amarjit’s kin continue to believe.

But Gujarat, where migrants have been living in constant fear since the attacks started, and which forced many to leave in disarray, is not the only state to treat ‘outsiders’ thus. In the past ten years, mig­rants have endured similar treatment in other states, especially in Maharashtra, where alleged Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members continually targeted them on one pretext or the other.

In Kerala, thousands of migrants from Bengal, Bihar and UP are invariably the first to be suspected whenever a crime takes place.

And yet, in states with excess labour like Bihar and Jharkhand, lakhs are com­pelled to leave for other states every year, despite the hardship and the casual, humiliating jeers they invariably face, just to earn a basic livelihood. From Kas­h­mir and Rajasthan to the south of the Vindhyas, there’s hardly a state that does not gluttonously consume the toil of the Bihari peasant-migrant. Although mig­­­rants from Poorv­­a­­nchal and Bihar have been transported by the British as indentured labour to work in the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbeans in the 19th century, internal migration rose sharply since the ’80s, when recurring floods rav­aged the local agriculture-based economy and forced many out of their villages.

All these years, reports of their exp­loitation also continued to trickle in. Following the Gujarat troubles, Rupani sought to reassure workers by saying that Gujarat was a “mini-India where everyone is secure and respected”. On a visit to Lucknow on October 15, he said that it was the hard work of people from UP and Bihar that helped develop Gujarat. Then, he rounded off with a winning metaphor: “Today, non-Gujaratis are living in Gujarat and have become part of the culture just like sugar dissolves in milk.”

Social scientists, however, beg to differ. Except in rare circumstances, they say, migrants hardly ever become part of local culture and are invariably viewed with suspicion as “the other”. Pushpendra, project coordinator of the Patna-based Centre for Development Practice and Research under Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), says cases like those in Gujarat happened because a particular image of a migrant as an outsider gets constructed everywhere. “A migrant is considered to be someone who does not belong to the place,” he tells Outlook. “Whether Maharashtra or Gujarat, the process of naturalisation does not usually happen anywhere.”

Pushpendra, whose centre has done in-depth research on migration, says that murder, rape and theft take place everywhere, but society reserves its harshest reactions for crimes committed by migrants. “If the same crime is committed by somebody from the nat­ive community, it is dealt with in a different way; in case of a migrant, even political mobilisation becomes easier.”

Migration from poor states will conti­nue despite the attacks in Gujarat, says Pushpendra. “There has been a long history of regional disparity in India and its development models have not bridged this gap over the years. Prosperous reg­ions remain prosperous while underdeveloped ones fail to catch up,” he adds.

Then there is anti-migration racism fuelled by economic anxiety of the type that is seen around the world, from Eur­ope to the US. “Unemployment is also a major issue everywhere,” says Push­pe­n­dra, citing it as a reason behind the viole­nce. “In Gujarat, it was not merely a ref­­lection of anger over the rape. It was because locals felt outsiders were tak­­ing away opportunities and resources.” A continual spur to migration also arises from the need for workers for a series of low-skilled jobs that locals are usually loath to take up.

As of now, some state governments are clu­eless as to how many workers have returned home from Gujarat. West Ben­gal’s labour ministry says that that the fallout of the attacks on the state’s mig­rant labourers in Gujarat is yet to be fully assessed. “The number of returnees is still not ascertained,” Labour minister Moloy Ghatak tells Outlook in Calcutta. “This is also the Durga Puja holiday season, so many would return for the festivities anyway. It is too premature to decisively assign a reason to their return.”

Ghatak, however, says that the state is prepared if a crisis emerges in the coming days. “During demonetisation too, thousands who had lost their jobs returned to Bengal, but CM Mamata Banerjee prevented an economic crisis by providing monetary assistance to them,” he says. “Currently, 18,000 are receiving benefits under that scheme.”

Road Back

Sanjoy Karmakar of West Bengal hasn’t gone back to Surat due to lack of work

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

Ghatak’s assurances notwithstanding, an uneasy calm prevails in many districts as more people return. At Kus­hberia village in Howrah district, the arr­ival of 40-year-old Pintu Hait’s body from Surat, where he worked as a gold-­polisher, caused alarm, sparking a rum­our that he was killed in an anti-mig­rant attack. Even though his family and friends sought to scotch the rumour, saying he had died of a heart-attack, many questioned the “uncanny coincidence” of the timing of his demise. Sanjoy Karmakar, a fellow villager who also worked in the jewellery industry, and who had brought back Hait’s body from Gujarat, says that on October 7 he rece­ived a call that Hait was sick. “So I rushed there and took him to hospital. Hours later, doctors declared him dead.”

Karmakar, who has been working in Surat for 18 years, visits his village once every year. In fact, like a majority of other migrant workers in the gem and jewellery sector from the state, he ensures that they are home for Lakshmi Puja. “It is the most important religious festival for jewellery makers,” says a Surat resident.

This year, as it emerges, Hait’s sudden death was not the only reason for Kar­makar’s return. He admits that their emp­loyers in Gujarat had suddenly told workers that there was no work at this juncture. “So we returned and did not go back to Surat after Hait’s funeral,” Karmakar says. Migrants like him confess to feeling a sense of uncertainty after the recent attacks. “We are otherwise treated quite well in Gujarat and we do have a relatively comfortable life,” he says. “I do want to go back.”

At the moment, though, such comfort cannot be taken for granted. Many in Kus­­­h­­beria and neighbouring Khalna village, from where many young men have migrated to Gujarat and other states, seem apprehensive and think that people returning from there are not telling the whole truth. “We don’t know what to bel­ieve. Those working in other states paint a rosy picture on their return. They don’t want us to think that they are not doing well,” says a local schoolteacher.

Road Back

Jewellery-maker Shah Jahan Mollah confesses to being terrified during the 2002 Gujarat riots

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

This is reflected in the way 58-year-old Shah Jahan Mollah explains his return to his village in Howrah’s Uluberia after riots broke out in Gujarat in 2002. The former jewellery-maker denies that he fled the widespread communal violence. “As I was getting older, my eyesight was failing,” he says disarmingly. But on further prodding he reveals that the communal clashes did unnerve him. He says that many of the workers from his village who had gone to Gujarat subsequently moved to other parts of the country, especially to Delhi and Mumbai.

Even in faraway Kerala, migrants—mostly from Bengal, Bihar and UP, and whose numbers have swelled in recent years—are viewed with suspicion by a majority of the locals. “In the past two-three decades, there has also been a tendency to probe migrants first if a crime occurs in the state,” says George Puli­ku­thiyil, director of Jananeethi, an NGO that provides free legal aid and consultancy. “This discriminatory tendency is very much in our genes and however much we deny it, we tend to view outsiders with suspicion. So it’s routine that the investigation of any crime goes in that direction first,” says Pulikuthiyil.

Likewise, in some of the most sensational cases in the state, it’s the migrants who have been arrested. For instance, in a recent ATM heist of Rs 35 lakh, the CCTV footage of the seven suspects rel­eased by the police seems to point towards the involvement of migrants. These sensationalised cases create a perception about migrants despite the pol­ice claiming that the number of criminals among them is relatively min­uscule compared to local Malayalis.

There are an estimated 25 to 30 lakh migrants in Kerala, but their numbers have dropped since demonetisa­tion, says N. Ajith Kumar, director, Centre for Socio-­Economic and Envir­onmen­tal Stu­­­dies, Kochi.

During the recent, devastating floods, hundreds of migrants had fled Kerala but those caught in the surging waters had a barrage of complaints about the discriminatory attitude of the locals. “In some of the camps, the local population, it is alleged, did not want migrants to stay with them,” says Ajith Kumar.

But it has to be stressed that such bias is not confined to a particular state. Coming from diverse places where the agrarian economy gets ravaged by perennial floods or droughts, industries are non-existent and employment opportunities are few, migration is probably the only option for millions. Handling persistent prejudice and slurs and being easy targets during any social disturbance is part of their struggle for existence.


  • 2 million-plus The number of north Indians who work in Kerala, according to Chinmay Tumbe’s book India Moving: A History of Migration
  • 4.42 million The total number of workers who migrate out of Bihar yearly, says a 2009-10 Indian Institute of Public Administration report
  • 20.3 million The number of people—more than the population of Australia—who travel on Indian trains every day, mostly for work

By Giridhar Jha with inputs from Dola Mitra in Calcutta and Minu Ittyipe in Kochi

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