The Mumbai police on Wednesday arrested 11 people for allegedly spreading rumours that resulted in hundreds of migrant workers gathering outside the railway station in Bandra on Tuesday, demanding that they be allowed to return to their home villages. Among those arrested was television news channel ABP Majha’s journalist Rahul Kulkarni, who reported on a South Central Railway internal note that suggested that a decision had been being made to run special trains for stranded people.

Following the nationwide lockdown imposed on May 25 to curtail the spread of Covid-19, lakhs of migrant labourers have been stuck in cities and town across India. The daily wage jobs on which they depended have dried up, leaving them with no income to buy food. Many of them are living in cramped shanties, making social distancing an impossibility.

The Mumbai police seems to have conveniently put the blame for the large gathering on these 11 people while disregarding the enormous errors made by the government, both at the state and the Central level. The Railways has not denied the veracity of the internal note that the channel reported on, which in no way suggests that the authorities were merely making plans to run special trains, as they are claiming.

In addition, the Railways have failed to offer convincing answers about why they continued to allow online ticke sales even as it was unsure whether the lockdown would be extended.

The 11 persons have been charged under provisions of the Indian Penal Code that include Section 117 for abetting the commission of an offence by the public, Section 188 for disobeying an order given by public servant, Section 269 for committing a negligent act likely to spread disease, Section 270 for malignant act likely to spread disease, Section 505 (2) related to statements that in public mischief
and Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, which relates to disobeying that legislation.

The report

The police claim that the actions of the 11 people contributed to false information spreading among the labourers, who gathered outside the railway station to demand trains to take them to their home states.

With regards to the journalist, the authorities are claiming that his report on an internal circular of the South Central Railway, the division under which Mumbai falls, is false information or a rumour.
The railway note said that in a video conference meeting on April 13, a day before the first leg of the nationwide 21-day lockdown was supposed to end, it had been decided to run “Jansadharan Specials for clearing stranded passengers/migrant labour of unreserved segment”. Officials were asked to evaluate the number of stranded passengers and migrant labourers and submit reports citing the originating and destination stations for the trains.

ABP Majha journalist Rahul Kulkarni, who was arrested on Wednesday, reported on this letter at 9 am on April 14, an hour before Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation to announce the extension of the lockdown.

The South Central Railway has not denied the veracity of the note. Chief Public Relations Officer for South Central Railway Rajesh Chilaka told the Indian Express that the letter was part of a “preparatory exercise” and claimed that its contents had been “taken out of context”.

However, as is clear from the note, the language is straightforward in its instructions to the officials. It does not seem like it related to a “preparatory exercise”.

Kulkarni in a Facebook post on April 14 said that the circular had been shared with him by a “responsible officer” of the Railways, explaining the measures taken to help the stranded people. His report did not mention the date or time of the train services.

In fact, the Times of India reported on April 12, the day before the South Central Railway issued the internal note, that the Centre has started collecting data on those stranded in camps across the country, to prepare to send them back to their home towns.

Hundreds of workers gathered at Bandra railway station on Tuesday, demanding that they be allowed to return to their home villages. Credit: PTI

Government failure

The large gathering in Bandra on Tuesday was an embarrassment to both the Centre and the Maharashtra government. Officials were caught unawares as thousands disregarded social distancing norms in their desperation to get back home.

The gathering led to a slugfest between the ruling coalition headed by the Shiv Sena and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party over the migrant labourers’ woes. The Ministry of Railways has only tied itself up in knots through vague explanations about “wrong news”.

This beg several crucial questions.

First, did Prime Minister Modi announce an extension of the lockdown without communicating it to a crucial ministry like the Railways? The internal note of the South Central Railway did not suggest in any manner that the preparation was for a period after May 3, the date to which the lockdown has now been extended. It merely said that it has been decided to run the Jansadharan Specials for passengers without reservations.

Secondly, why did the Indian Railways, even during the first leg of the lockdown that started on March 25, continue to take online bookings? The Times of India reported on Thursday that the Railway suspended all booking of tickets indefinitely “after the lockdown was extended till May 3”. It is now in the process of refunding payments for tickets booked for trains during the lockdown period.

Third, the Indian Express reported that migrants who gathered outside the Bandra station did not mention any TV news reports or videos for their actions. They said they had received several calls from others in the locality who told them that there would be a meeting held outside their settlement where a decision would be taken on sending them to their villages.

On what basis did the police come to a conclusion that Kulkarni’s news report was the reason for the gathering? If the news report had such a profound impact on the workers, why did other railway stations in Mumbai and Maharashtra not witness similar crowds?

Further, what was the police doing as the crowd gathered outside the railway station? Is it not the administration’s responsibility to prevent such gatherings during a lockdown?

It is clear from the sequence of events that the case filed against the journalist is an attempt to scapegoat the media for the failures of the authorities. By trying to punish the media for reporting on a document that has not been denied by the authorities, the governments are trying to create a chilling effect to warn journalists not to report anything beyond its handouts.