Mohammed Ishrafil is among the nearly 50,000 migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar who fled Gujarat early this month following attacks by local residents. The attacks began after a Bihari man allegedly raped a child in Sabarkantha district on September 28. Ishrafil is from Saharsa in Bihar and worked on a metro rail project near Ahmedabad. He did not witness any violence himself, but the “atmosphere of fear”, partly created by WhatsApp messages about attacks in Vadodara, compelled his group of workers to leave. “It was scary,” he said. “We feared for our lives. So, we decided to return until the situation normalised. I reached Patna on Wednesday and feel relieved to be home.”
Relief has since given way to dismay, over the attacks and the Gujarat government’s alleged failure to prevent them but also the silence of Bihar’s political class. “Whoever raped that girl must be given the harshest punishment,” Israfil said. “But how can they justify violence against innocent people. Also, is it not the responsibility of the state government to ensure the safety of those who have left their homes to work in that state. I heard that a Congress MLA instigated the local people, so why have they not arrested him yet?”
The legislator in question is Alpesh Thakor, who is alleged to have incited violence against North Indian migrants at a rally in Himmatnagar on October 1.
Israfil noted that none of Bihar’s political parties has spoken up against the attacks and criticised the Nitish Kumar government for asking migrants to stay put in Gujarat.
But why have Bihar’s politicians stayed silent other than, of course, blaming each other? It has largely to do with the failure of successive regimes to generate employment in the state, argued Professor DM Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna. Additionally, none of the parties can offer a plan to prevent such incidents from repeating every few years. Migrants from Bihar have previously suffered hostility, even violence, in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and, allegedly, Kerala.
“Data shows none of the previous governments has been able to tackle the state’s massive unemployment, forcing people to migrate in search of jobs,” Diwakar explained. “Since all parties are now in election mode, they don’t want to raise this emotive issue.”
If a party does speak out, he argued, it would be expected to offer solutions. The ruling Janata Dal (United) is downplaying the problem since it does not want the public to seek answers on what it has done to keep people from leaving in search of livelihood. “No new industry has come up in Bihar, the rural employment guarantee scheme exists only on paper and despite several investor summits, there has been little or no investment,” Diwakar said. “The only option for the party is to keep quiet, and hope these workers go back soon and there is no political backlash.”
The Congress is on the back foot because of the accusations against Thakor, Diwakar added, while the Rashtriya Janata Dal “does not want to burn its fingers over this emotive issue” so close to the 2019 general election.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, an ally of Nitish Kumar, is additionally hamstrung by the growing public realisation that the “twin evils” of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax – the signature economic programmes of the party’s central government – have only aggravated the “unemployment crisis”, Diwakar said.
Moreover, the violence against migrants in Gujarat is a result of the “failed policies of the Narendra Modi regime”. “Gujarat’s social indicators are low as compared to several other states,” he said. “This backlash was bound to happen.”
Indeed, as Scroll.in reported from Sabarkantha this week, resentment about “outsiders” taking jobs was one of the main reasons behind the attacks.
But if Bihar’s politicians have failed the migrant workers, why haven’t they faced a backlash? “People have become so used to such attacks that it does not even matter to them, and no one knows this better than politicians,” Diwakar replied. “They will just return when the situation normalises, enabling politicians raise issues other than unemployment.”
Asked why the Opposition is not speaking about the plight of Bihar’s migrant workers, the Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Jha denied that is the case and claimed his party is already holding protests. He accused the national media of not covering these protests and trying to create an impression that his party is playing safe.
“Are you telling me that Alpesh has become Raj Thackrey of Gujarat?” Jha asked. “If they have proof why have they not taken any action? This kind of politics of pitching people against each other has gained momentum since Modi come to power. This politics of xenophobia is their doing and as a responsible party we do not want this to be Bihar versus Gujarat. Believe me they would be ecstatic if we did this.”
The ruling party’s KC Tyagi blamed both the Congress and Gujarat’s BJP government for “this “crisis. “Thakor should be immediately removed as co-in charge of the Congress unit in Bihar,” he demanded. “His being at the helm of the party’s affairs in the state raises serious questions about the Congress’s brand of politics.”
Thakor shares the task of looking after the Congress’s affairs in Bihar with fellow Gujarati Shaktisinh Gohil.
Tyagi criticised the Gujarat administration for “not doing enough to protect the migrant population” and ridiculed the state’s police chief for saying the migrants from Bihar had returned home for the Chath Puja festival. “Who goes to Chath with bandages on their bodies?” he asked. “Provincialism is wrong for the country and reflects wrong tendencies of the Gujarat government. They should introspect.”
The BJP, on its part, laid the blame squarely at the Congress’s door. The party’s spokesperson, Sambit Patra, alleged that Thakor is working at Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s behest to “foment violence against people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh” in Gujarat. Patra even accused the Opposition party of “conspiring to burn the country for political benefit” before next year’s general election.
The Congress dismissed the allegations against Thakor and blamed the BJP for “tarnishing his image”. The party maintained that the BJP is trying to hide its failures by targeting the poor to fan a new controversy. “So, is the BJP suggesting one man can force so many people to leave a state and they can’t do anything?” asked Bihar Congress leader Kishor Kumar Jha. “Why is it that wherever the BJP is in power such incidents happen? People have realised that pitting one community against the other is in the party’s DNA and they will teach it a lesson in 2019.”
Still, With two Gujaratis, Shaktisinh Gohil and Thakor, at the helm of affairs at Congress’ Bihar unit, the party is certain to bear the brunt of Thakor’s villainous act. For now, all stakeholders are just blaming each other to ensure no one raises the real issue of why so many people leave the state in search of jobs each year.