Almost two weeks after a Bihari man allegedly raped a 14-month-old child in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district on September 28, sparking attacks on migrants that prompted an estimated 50,000 people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh to flee the state, work slowly resumed on Tuesday in factories in the block in which the violence started.

Despite rumours of a bandh in the district headquarters at Himmatnagar and an attack on a factory in Idar as recently as Monday, manufacturing operations were getting underway again. News of the alleged rape outside a ceramics unit near Sabarkantha’s Gambhoi town last fortnight had led to migrants being attacked in at least seven of Gujarat’s 33 districts. Several factories had to suspend operations for lack of workers. As of Tuesday, approximately 450 people had been arrested for the attacks.

Two weeks later, observers are still trying to understand why the alleged rape of the child resulted in so much violence. Part of the blame is being attributed to Alpesh Thakor, Congress MLA and head of the Thakor Sena, who led a rally in Himmatnagar on October 1, where he is alleged to have incited violence against North Indian migrants.

But another reason for the resentment around Himmatnagar lies in the battle for jobs in the factories that have mushroomed in villages outside the designated zone of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. “Everyone wants to join these factories, but then they tell us we are not experienced,” said Vinod Pranami, a resident of Bhavpur village. “If we can’t work here, where are we supposed to get experience from?”

Fixing a bulb

On Wednesday, the grandfather of the child described his anguish when he realised that she had gone missing. “I took my eyes off her for a few seconds while fixing a bulb and in that time she vanished,” said the grandfather, a farmer who also runs a tea stall opposite the ceramics factory where the accused man worked. “Had I not looked away this would not have happened.”

When Scroll.in visited the stall on Wednesday, the only customers were police officers from the State Reserve Police who had been stationed outside the factory. The unit opened around six to seven years ago, which is when the grandfather opened his tea stall outside it.

The grandfather noticed the child was missing at around 7 pm on September 28. By around 7.30 pm, a crowd had gathered to search for the child. Their suspicion fell on the accused man, who had since appeared on the scene, evidently because of the manner in which he was conducting himself. By this time, the police had arrived from Gambhoi town and convinced the accused man to show them where the child was. After attempting to mislead the police a few times, the child’s grandfather said, the man finally led them to a field nearby where the child was lying face down in a puddle of rainwater. She was taken to hospital and the man arrested before the crowd could seriously injure him.

Already, messages about the alleged attack had begun to circulate in the six or seven Thakur-dominated villages along that stretch of highway and the crowd swelled. That night, the crowd attacked the ceramics factory where the worker was employed, burning vehicles and the living quarters of the migrant workers.

A mob burnt down the living quarters of workers at the factory where the accused man was employed. The compound is now deserted. Credit: Mridula Chari
A mob burnt down the living quarters of workers at the factory where the accused man was employed. The compound is now deserted. Credit: Mridula Chari

A swelling crowd

On the night of the attack, 15 employees from a tiles factory down the road fled to their homes in Rajasthan.

“When we saw the crowd gathering, we thought that they might attack us as well because we also speak Hindi,” said a worker at Shubh Granite, who returned only on the weekend and who asked not to be identified. “So we decided to leave immediately.”

The workers were not entirely mistaken in their belief. By around 9 pm, the crowd outside the ceramics factory had swelled considerably. After attacking the factory, the mob went on to attack other factories down the road, including a large plastics factory that stands on a 3.5-acre plot.

Most migrant workers who fled the area were employed in small factories that did not have separate residences within their compounds. Others had jobs in the informal economy – “pakodawalas”, they were disparagingly called.

Contentious rally

An allegedly contentious speech on October 1 by Congress MLA Alpesh Thakor at a rally in Himmatnagar is being blamed for inciting violence against North Indian migrants. Videos of his rally went viral on social media and messaging services, spreading news of the alleged rape.

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The rancour against migrants in the area also has its roots in the growth of several new factories that have been built over the last seven to eight years in villages in Sabarkantha, outside the designated Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation zone. In 2006-’07, there were only 49 registered industrial units in the district. By 2010-’11, this number had grown to 401, according to a report by the MSME Development Institute. By 2016-’17, another report by the same institute puts the number of registered units in Sabarkantha at 701.

“It is easier to open factories in villages than in towns,” said Sandip Patel, owner of Shubham Tiles. “The government does not watch us as closely and we can do our work efficiently.”

With factories springing up, land prices have shot up. But there is also resentment. Bhavpur resident Vinod Pranami said that it was difficult for locals to find work in the factories because of their lack of experience in manufacturing units.

Pranami, a farmer who said he has no interest in seeking industrial work, was one of around 500 people from his village who gathered at the factory site on the evening of September 28. While not admitting whether he too participated in the violence, he said that he did not expect the North Indian workers would stay away for very long.

“But when they do come back, they will take care before they do anything else,” Pranami said. “We have shown them now that we will not let them get away.”

Former Bhavpur sarpanch Rajendrasingh Rathod. Credit: Mridula Chari
Former Bhavpur sarpanch Rajendrasingh Rathod. Credit: Mridula Chari

Locals come in

Rajendrasingh Rathod is a former sarpanch of Bhavpur village, under whose tenure from 2011 to 2017 the large plastics factory near the attacked ceramics factory was built.

“I have worked in industries before and I know they cannot function without machine operators from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” Rathod said. “At the same time, they promised us that this factory would employ local people and even collected our Aadhaar card copies, so that we wouldn’t create any problems for them.”

This issue of local hiring has become an issue of contention in recent months, with politicians such as Thakor demanding that the policy be strictly enforced. Just two days before the violence in Sabarkantha, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani promised to enact a law to enforce local hiring and to promote skill development.

According to existing industrial policies in the state, factories have to employ 85% of their workers from surrounding areas. But this policy, which is decades old, is observed more in its breach, said local residents.

However, Manibhai Patel, head of the Sabarkantha District Ceramic Association and owner of Riwasa Tiles factory in Himmatnagar block, disagreed.

“There are around 35,000 to 40,000 people working in the tiles industry in the district and around 70,000 to 1 lakh people in all industries together,” Manibhai Patel said. “Of these, only 20% come from outside Gujarat and those people usually work better.”

However, the plant manager of Patel’s factory, Pandu Naidu, said that around 40% of their workers were from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, 20% from South India, 20% from East India and only 20% from Gujarat. Not one fled the factory, largely because of the police protection they received, he said, despite their initial nervousness.

Like all businessmen, however, Patel is eager for the situation to become normal and for migrants to return – a desire that is being backed to the hilt by the district administration. This is because of the value of migrant labour.

“We need continuity to operate factories,” Patel said. “Anyone who is in their native place will not work hard because they have links to society. People from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will work for 14 hours without complaining and not return home for two or three years. In any state you go to, locals will not do this.”

Sabarkantha District Ceramic Association head Manibhai Patel. Credit: Mridula Chari
Sabarkantha District Ceramic Association head Manibhai Patel. Credit: Mridula Chari