The Kerala police have a problem on its hands, just when it thought it deserved credit for cracking the rape and murder case of a Dalit law student that had led to widespread protests in the state in April.

While the police claim to have arrested the man said to be behind the rape and murder of the 30-year-old student in Perumbavoor near Kochi on April 28, the fact that he is a migrant labourer from Assam has become a matter of concern.

“A record which tells who is coming from where and working in which sector in which town of Kerala should be created,’’ social activist TB Mini said to The Kerala police and labour department should jointly work on identifying the non-Keralite labour force, Mani added. “It is not just for crime prevention. It will also help in protection of the rights of the migrant workers.”

Such pressure on the newly-elected Pinarayi Vijayan government to bring every non-Malayali working in Kerala under the scanner is creating mistrust between local and outsider. It would mean creating a database of every passenger who disembarks from a train in search of work in Kerala.

Bridging the gulf

Though there are no official statistics available, non-government organisations in Kerala estimate that the state is home to about 25 lakh to 30 lakh migrants, with a large number in Perambavoor in Ernakulam district. This satellite town is often referred to as “migrants’ own country”. These migrant labourers fill the gap created by the exodus of Keralites to the Gulf nations (estimated to be about 25 lakh), particularly because the educated locals tend to opt only for white collar jobs. The majority of the migrants work in the plywood, glass and chemical units in Perambavoor and Aluva in Ernakulam district, besides in the construction sector. The 400-odd plywood units in Perambavoor employ nearly 10,000 workers, an estimated 90% of them being non-Malayalis.

The fingerpointing in Perambavoor started soon after news of the rape case came to light. Migrants from the North East, Jharkhand, Bengal and other states in North India became the object of suspicion. The local vs outsider debate gathered momentum as the state was preparing for Assembly elections in May.

“There is no record, so we do not know who is coming and who is going,’’ said Eldose Kunnapilly, the United Democratic Front MLA from Perambavoor. He claimed to be echoing the feelings of many locals, who think Kerala needs to tackle the influx of migrants into the state.

Easy targets

The police did not help matters by blaming the migrants for the crime when investigation had not even begun. “How can they tar every migrant without conducting any probe?’’ asked the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Subhashini Ali, who was in Perambavoor then, pointing out that it showed lack of professionalism of Kerala police.

As graphic details were leaked about how 23-year-old Ameerul Islam allegedly raped and killed the law student, the simmering anger against the migrants grew.

In the last five years, 1,770 cases registered in Kerala have named migrants were the accused. These cases range from drug trafficking and robbery to murder and dealing in fake currency.

“Migrant workers usually get caught in drug cases here,” said Sayeed, a Perambavoor resident, echoing the prejudices of many in the area. “Sellers and buyers would be these construction workers.”

Cause for concern

This attitude alarms activists. “Looking for a migrant worker angle for every other crime is wrong,” said Yamini Paramasivam. “Accusing migrant workers is the mentality of the middle-class Malayali. They don’t do any work. Migrants do.’’

The Perambavoor economy, for instance, runs because of the migrant population. The town even has a theatre to screen Hindi, Odiya and Bengali films. So do many other towns in neighbouring Thrissur and Palakkad districts. The local churches hold the Mass in Odiya and Bengali sweets are sold at some of the shops in Perambavoor.

But the demand to create a database has also met with opposition. “You cannot have a database in one state alone,” said V Muraleedharan, former president of the Kerala unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Anyone can settle anywhere in India. Such an idea will not be legally acceptable or implementable.’’

This case is as much a test of the police as it is of Kerala’s ability to live up to its reputation for multiculturalism.