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In A Migratory State

In a district cursed by economic barrenness, men like Mohammad Afrazul have to offer their labour elsewhere, despite discomfort or danger

In A Migratory State
Mohammad Afrazul(inset) and his grieving family in Jallalpur
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
In A Migratory State

A long with its luscious mangoes, human capital is also a highly exportable commodity in this district of West Bengal. “You will not find a single household in the district which doesn’t have at least one member who has migrated to another state for livelihood,” says Abdul Matin, a neighbour of Mohammad Afrazul, the migrant lab­ourer from Malda, who was butchered, then burnt to death in Rajasthan. Matin, 41, who has been working as an ‘agent’ who supplies workers from the district since he was 17, explains, “There are no jobs in Malda. The district doesn’t have any industries and unlike other districts in West Bengal, agriculture is not an option either.”

Not part of the rice bowl of Bengal and with few cultivatable fields, Malda is known for its mango and lichi groves, but which can only employ a limited number of people. A 173-km long border with East Pakistan/Bangladesh was, according to local administrators, one of the worst aff­ected regions in Bengal in terms of refugee influx at the time of Partition and later during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. “Malda is still reeling under that weight of the influx of refugees,” says a politician who doesn’t see any easy sol­ution to this “chronic problem”. He cla­ims that “Malda has resisted traditional attempts at development because of several factors.” These include proximity to the border, which makes it a hub of smu­ggling and other cross-border crimes like human trafficking, money-­laundering and unchecked infiltration. The illegal job market is a thriving parallel economy in Malda, which in 2015 was declared by the National Invest­igative Agency as the main centre of the illicit currency racket in the country, acc­ount­ing for a staggering 90 per cent of India’s fake currency. A mia­­sma of illegality seems to have spread and disabled, or infected, other economic activity.

“There is no denying that there is a politician-police-criminal nexus, which is too deep-rooted to be shaken up,” the politician admits. “Even if we want to make an honest attempt to ‘clean up’ Malda, we face stiff resistance.” The formidable Congress leader and MP from Malda, the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, was relentless in his efforts for the development of Malda. When he became the Union Railways minister, he established the Malda Town station. “He tried to turn the region into an important port of trade by improving rail connectivity, but it was an uphill task, even for a leader like him. It fizzled out after his death,” says the politician. Malda’s old industries, jute and silk, would have yielded revenue and created jobs if it had not been gradually corralled away since Independence by powerful traders with links to the black markets. “The employment scenario is very bleak. The resultant poverty drives youth either into joining, or being dragged into, crime or to flee to other cities and states with a demand for cheap, unskilled labour. That’s their only escape,” says a local resident.

Darkness Ahead

An overloaded bus trundles along on a Malda road

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

After the ghastly murder triggered panic, many came back. But the fear has subsided. Staying back in Malda is not a choice for any of them.

Mohammad Afrazul, who was killed in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand on December 6, was one such escapee. All that the father of three doting daughters wanted to do, say relatives and neighbours, was to ensure that his wife and children didn’t go hungry, to secure for them a ‘respectable’ life. A dung-splattered narrow alley lined by cowsheds leads to a tiny brick house in the decaying town of Jallalpur. His wife, three daughters and sisters are huddled on the bed, their eyes puffy from weeping and lack of sleep. “He used to come home regularly, because he couldn’t bear to be away from his daughters for long,” says Gul Bahar Bibi, his wife, in a faint, barely audible voice. “They are all hoarse from screaming and crying,” explains one of the many neighbours who have been keeping watch over them since news of Afrazul’s death arrived. Gul Bahar continues as tho­­ugh in a trance, “We don’t have a son, so he was the only bread-winner. But now I thank Allah that we don’t, as I would have had to send him to a distant land and who knows what would have happened.” She breaks down again. Her eldest daughter, Jyotsna Bibi, 26, looks dazed as she consoles her. Her husband too works in Rajasthan. “I spoke to him and he told me he doesn’t want to live there anymore. I have two small children. I don’t know what will happen to them if anything happens to him.”

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has assured the family of a government job and has provided a Rs 3 lakh compensation package. The state government, which sent its representatives to the family after the incident, has apparently assured locals that “Bengal has a place for everyone”. According to Moha­mmad Rahman, a local strongman, this has allayed fears in Malda’s families that if there is a reverse exodus of Malda’s men from Rajasthan and Gujarat, where communal violence is rife, they will not be unwelcome at home. “In West Bengal, minorities are treated very well. It is a shame that the state doesn’t have enough jobs. Otherwise no one from our community would leave,” says Rahman.

However, Rahman points out that “it is highly unlikely that everyone would want to come back to Malda. Where is the money? While dignity and safety is important, one cannot survive on that alone. Everyone needs a livelihood.” He further notes, “The initial scare triggered by the incident has now died down considerably. When the video of the ghastly murder went viral, everyone panicked. Some imm­ediately boarded trains back home. Others couldn’t get tickets, but are now on waiting lists. A few decided to wait and watch.” He says that since the incident, and “possibly inspired by Mamata Banerjee’s gesture,” the Rajasthan government too has provided compensation to the victim’s fam­ily and has reassured the community that they are safe in the state. So, he hints, people are likely to regard the incident as an aberration. “I have friends working in Rajasthan who were thinking of taking the next train home, but are now less worried.” Rahman also claims that he has heard from acquaintances in Raj­asthan that the “incident was related to money, and that it was not a communal incident related to love-jehad, as proj­ected.” He adds, “Afrazul was a committed man who loved his wife and daughters and he wouldn’t cheat. Some people told me that after the man—Shambhulal Regar—committed the murder he tried to turn it into a communal killing, thinking that he would get the support of some Hindutva groups. So he posted the video.”

Such explanations provide an uneasy comfort to some. “ I am trying to convince myself of such stories,” says ano­­­ther con­struction labourer from Malda who wat­ched the video, packed his belongings and left Rajasthan. “I was earning Rs 400 a day and was trying to move up in life. I was thinking of moving my wife and children to Raj­asthan,” he says. “I definitely will not do that. But I will go back. After being here since the incident has occurred, I realise there is nothing to do in Malda.” From the parched frying pan in Malda to an ever-­lurking communal fire in Rajasthan is a journey they are condemned to make.

By Dola Mitra in Malda

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