Mohammad Ajmer’s father never went much beyond his village in West Bengal’s Malda district, spending his years working as a landless farmhand. Ajmer, on the other hand, is remarkably well travelled, having worked in Delhi, Rajasthan and even as far away as Kerala, mostly on construction sites.

“Kerala is the best since we get paid on time and nobody bothers us too much,” says Ajmer, smiling.

Ajmer is not alone in this travels. Every year, lakhs of people from Malda and all over Bengal head out to places as varied as Delhi, Kerala and Kashmir. They work as drivers, construction workers, waiters and any other blue collar job that exists, complementing earlier waves of migrants from places such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, so ubiquitous is this migration that a 2018 blockbuster Malayalam film even featured a Bengali song in which the protagonist learns about the virtue of hard work from migrant labourers.

But despite Bengali migrant labourers making space for themselves in distant corners of the country, they barely figure in the state’s politics. In Malda, the epicentre of this outmigration, found hardly any acknowledgment of the phenomenon among local leaders even as the district prepared to vote in the general election on April 23.

This story has been reported from two parliamentary constituencies.

‘No work’

Malda was once the centre of Bengal, the imperial city of Gaur serving as the seat of the kingdoms of the Palas, the Senas and the Bengal Sultans. A lot has changed since. In 2004, a state government study found Malda had the lowest Human Development Index score of any district.

Agriculture is the biggest employer in Malda, which grows rice, jute and mangoes. However, landlessness and marginal land holdings are high. This, compounded by the lack of urban centres or industry in the district, is forcing people to migrate for work.

In the Jaluabadhal gram panchayat, nearly every family has a male member who is an economic emigrant. “Most people do not have land here and even those who do only own one to two bighas which is not enough,” explained Mohammed Ziaul Choudhury, a local Trinamool Congress leader. “There is no work to do at home. We get one day’s employment and then have to sit around for five days.”

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When spoke to the Trinamool’s candidate for Malda North, however, the economic distress did not find a mention. “Malda’s problem is that we have a lot of skilled workers like carpet weavers,” said Mausam Noor. “They have to travel to find work.”

The Bengal government has no targeted schemes to help Malda’s migrant labourers and their families.

North Bengal districts such as Malda have some of the highest migration outflows in India. Source: Economic Survey 2016-'17, Ministry of Finance, Government of India.

Precarious life

As is the case with large populations of migrant workers nearly everywhere, Bengali labourers face social resistance in places they migrate to for work. In July 2017, after a Bengali domestic worker was allegedly assaulted and confined in a housing complex in the Nation Capital Region, security guards clashed with her family and neighbours.

A few months later, in Rajasthan, a man called Shambhulal Regar hacked, attempted to decapitate and eventually burnt Afrazul Khan, a migrant worker from Malda. The anti-Muslim hate crime was captured on video and distributed on social media. There were massive demonstrations by Hindutva groups in support of the murderer.

In Afrazul Khan’s Saiyadpur village, over a year later, there is still shock at the gruesome manner of his death. “There was no work at home so he had to go out,” said his widow Gulbahar Bibi, speaking softly, her voice heavy with grief.

Afrazul Khan had left Malda not long after his marriage, 30 years ago. “He worked across North India but was settled in Rajasthan for 12-13 years,” said Gulbahar. He worked mainly as a construction labour contractor before he was killed.

Gulbahar Bibi, widow of Afrazul Khan who was murdered in an anti-Muslim hate crime in Rajasthan. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

BJP vs Trinamool

While there seems to be little state support for migrant workers and their families generally, the Trinamool has been active in this particular case. Soon after Afrazul Khan’s killing, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ruled Rajasthan at the time. Her government awarded Rs 3 lakh as compensation and a monthly stipend of Rs 750 to Afrazul Khan’s family and gave one of his daughters a job with the local block development office.

On February 23, nine workers from Malda were killed in an explosion at a carpet factory in Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh. While news reports indicated the blast was caused by firecrackers also being manufactured at the location, senior Trinamool minister Firhad Hakim claimed it could have been an act of sabotage since a “grenade had been found at the explosion spot”. He also criticised Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. The Trinamool organised a public meeting to offer condolences to the victims’ families and distribute compensation.

So, while the problems of migrant workers are mostly ignored, the Trinamool is concentrating on a few headline cases involving Bengali migrants in BJP-ruled states to attack the Hindutva party.

Muslim vote

Malda has long been a bastion of the Congress, which won both of the district’s Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The Trinamool, however, has been making inroads by using its image as a party friendly to minority interests in order to cleave away Muslims from the Congress. In Malda, the migrant population is largely Muslim. By highlighting the cases of migrant Muslims attacked in states ruled by the BJP, the ruling party hopes to gain the community’s support.

That it is the party’s key electoral strategy was made clear by Banerjee at a campaign rally in Malda on April 18. She did not mention the larger issue of migration, but made sure to point out her government’s assistance to Afrazul Khan’s family in a speech primarily attacking the BJP.

The BJP atacked these moves as appeasement, accusing the Trinamool of using the deaths of migrant workers to woo Muslims. “When Afrazul’s body was bought back, the government made it a tourist spot,” said Sanjit Mishra, Malda district president of the BJP. “If the victims are Muslim, their [local administration’s] behaviour is different from if the victim had been a Hindu.”

Mishra’s accusation fits in with the Bengal BJP’s tactic of attracting Hindu voters by accusing the Trinamool of minority appeasement.

Milton Sheikh is scared to migrate for work after Afrazul Khan's murder. But he says he has no choice since there is no employment in Malda. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

No solution

The Congress’s Malda North candidate too accused the Trinamool of indulging in tokenism. “Both the Centre and the state have failed to provide jobs, hence this migration,” Isha Khan Choudhury said. “We need to create jobs here. That is the solution. Not holding rallies and meetings.”

Recent incidents of violence against migrants have scarred Malda but there appears to be no solution in sight. As Rinku Sheikh, a weaver of polyester sheets in Enayatpur village, where the nine workers killed in Bhadohi were from, put it, “Given a choice, I would never leave home. Our family is here, our house is here.” But there is often no choice but to migrate for work.

Milton Sheikh, from the same village as Afrazul Khan, said the conditions for Bengali migrant labourers in Rajasthan have become much worse since the gruesome killing. But he has no option other than to look for work outside Malda. “Contractors know that we cannot do anything, we have no power. So after the killing, they withheld our money,” he said. “I am scared to go back to Rajasthan. But eventually I will have to go. What will we eat otherwise?”

Also read: In North Bengal, feudalism of Congress is challenged by communalism of the BJP and Trinamool

Rajasthan hate murder: The other tragedy in Afrazul’s killing is a famine of compassion, outrage