Viral videos have set off a wave of panic among Hindi-speaking migrant workers in Tamil Nadu – and a political war across states.

Over the past two weeks, several videos have been shared on social media purportedly showing migrant workers, especially from Bihar, being attacked and even killed in Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil Nadu police and state officials as well as fact checkers have pointed out that these videos are either of incidents that did not not take place in the state or are unrelated to the false claims being made.

However, influenced by the videos, some migrant workers are returning home out of fear, affecting economic activities in parts of Tamil Nadu, according to a few industry leaders.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has tapped into these claims of violence against Bihari migrant labourers to attack Bihar’s coalition government, saying it failed to protect them.

On March 4, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on March 4 condemned the rumours and said workers are safe in the state. The same day, the Tamil Nadu police booked BJP’s Uttar Pradesh spokesperson Prashant Patel Umrao and the editor of Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar for spreading false information.

The police have also filed cases against Mohammed Tanveer, a local journalist who runs the Twitter handle @TanveerPost, and Twitter user Shubham Shukla for posting false information.

What has happened

On February 21, the Tamil Nadu Government Railway Police had arrested one person for assaulting and abusing a group of migrant labourers onboard a train after the video of the incident went viral on social media.

However, the state’s Director General of Police C Sylendra Babu said on Thursday that the other incidents, as seen in videos circulating online, had taken place in the past – in Tiruppur and in Coimbatore districts – and were not cases of violence against migrant workers.

Similarly, fact checkers have pointed out that in some other cases, the videos are not from Tamil Nadu. These videos, some of which are old, were from Telangana, Rajasthan and Karnataka, and were unrelated to the false claims of Hindi-speaking workers being assaulted.

Impact on the ground

Leaders of sectoral business associations such as M Ravi, president of the Chennai Hotels Association, told The Hindu that many workers had left for home citing calls from their families asking them to return. K Baskaran, secretary of the Kakkalur Industrial Estate Manufacturers Association, told the newspaper that this was adversely affecting businesses.

Some industries in parts of Tamil Nadu employ a significant number of migrant workers. For example, more than 70% of the workers in hospitality and construction are migrants. In places like Tiruppur, nearly 20% of the garment unit workers are also from northern states.

Tamil Nadu’s Labour Minister CV Ganesan on Friday said that labourers were aware that there was no truth to these rumours. He accused miscreants of spreading rumours on social media with an “ulterior motive”.

Nevertheless, the administrations of Coimbatore and Tiruppur, where a significant number of migrant workers are employed, have issued appeals in Hindi, urging workers not to panic. District collectors and industrial associations have also set up helplines for the migrant workers.

The Hindu reported that some migrant workers from Coimbatore and Tiruppur districts were heading home for Holi. Some industry leaders expressed confidence that the workers will return to Tamil Nadu after the festival.

Politics in two states

Even as the Tamil Nadu state machinery and police officials tried to assuage these concerns, the BJP in Bihar shared videos with false claims of attacks on migrant workers from the state.

On March 2, the BJP’s Bihar unit claimed on its Twitter handle that Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav was celebrating Stalin’s birthday despite “12 Bihari migrant workers [having been] killed” in the latter’s state. The widely viewed tweet was subsequently deleted.

The BJP also attacked the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal Bihar government by sharing videos of purported Bihari migrant workers claiming to have fled from Tamil Nadu. The videos show the purported migrants claiming to have been mistreated in Tamil Nadu and complaining that the Bihar government did not act.

After these allegations were raised in the Bihar Assembly, Yadav highlighted that Tamil Nadu’s director general of police had refuted the reports of alleged violence.

Yadav also accused the BJP of trying to create divisions among states. “On one hand they [the BJP] shout Bharat Mata Ki Jai and on the other hand they create hatred among states as if Tamil Nadu is not a part of India,” Yadav said in the House.

However, amid pressure from the BJP, Kumar on March 3 announced the setting up of a four-member committee that will visit Tamil Nadu and take stock of the situation.

In August last year, Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) snapped ties with the BJP in Bihar and formed a new government with the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Tejashwi Yadav speaks to the media in Patna on March 5. Credit: PTI.

Tamil Nadu BJP President K Annamalai said on March 3 that migrant workers are safe in Tamil Nadu and the recent developments were a deliberate attempt to malign the state’s image using false information. “I say this beyond party affiliations because I have faith in the people of the state,” Annamalai said.

Annamalai was quoted by The Hindu as saying that he had told the BJP’s Bihar unit chief that “there was no truth to those videos” and that Bihari migrants in Tamil Nadu were safe.

However, on Saturday, Annamalai claimed that “vile comments” by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s parliament members on North Indians, a state minister calling them “panipuri sellers” and alliance partners demanding their “exodus” had led to this situation. In May last year, Tamil Nadu education minister K Ponmudi had said learning Hindi would not help get jobs as Hindi speakers “sell panipuri”.

On Sunday, Chennai’s Cyber Crime Unit filed a case against unit chief Annamalai for his comments linking the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to the spread of disinformation.

TN government’s response

Chief Minister MK Stalin on March 4 said that the Tamil Nadu government and people will “stand to protect our migrant brothers”. “Those spreading rumours that workers from other States are being attacked in Tamil Nadu are against the Indian nation, they infringe the national integrity,” Stalin said. “Some doing cheap politics over a non-issue is condemnable.”

Stalin had on Saturday also spoken to Kumar assuring him about the safety of migrants from Bihar.

On Sunday, Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi, who has had multiple run-ins with Stalin’s government, urged migrant labourers in the state to not panic. “The state government is committed to provide them security,” Ravi said. The Tamil Nadu police has formed a special team to arrest those spreading disinformation.