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Otherisation of migrants in Kerala

| | in Agenda

It is an irony that Kerala, which is witness to inhuman discrimination against its emigrant workers in the Gulf, is subjecting migrants from other Indian States to undergo the same agony in God’s Own Country

A strange kind of dislike is spreading fast among the people of Kerala towards the migrant workers in the State, especially those from Assam and West Bengal; and nationwide debates on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue are providing added justification for that aversion.

The antipathy towards the “other” has become so intense among the common Keralites that whenever something anti-social or criminal happens in society or rumours about such incidents  spread — even if these are non-existent — they are tempted to point a finger at the migrant workers. The social media platforms turn abuzz with unethical campaigns against the community of the “other” and such campaigns are often based on “official warnings” of which the authorities would have no knowledge. The affluent and average Keralites tend to view the migrant workers with disdain, suspicion and even contempt in market places, at cinemas and even when they are toiling their paddy fields, plucking their coconuts, serving them food at restaurants, constructing their cozy, concrete shelters, etc.

From the viewpoint of the rich and the middle class Keralites, this dislike is not unfounded. Crimes involving migrant workers are not unheard of in Kerala. Some of these crimes have been horrifying. A 32-year-old man hailing from Murshidabad, West Bengal, was arrested on the morning of July 30 immediately after he killed a young woman, a 21-year-old college student, by slitting her throat with a kitchen knife inside her house in Perumbavoor, about 45 kilometres from Kochi, when she tried to prevent him from snatching a gold chain of her grandmother. It would not be easy for Keralites to forget the gruesome rape and murder of a 27-year-old Dalit woman, a law student, inside her one-room house in Perumbavoor on April 28, 2016. The killer, 21-year-old Ameerul Islam, was a migrant worker from Dholda, a remote village in Assam. Many cases related to assaults, thefts, drug-peddling, etc, involving migrant workers have come up in the recent past in Kerala’s police stations.

Still, there are people who hold that such isolated incidents are not reason enough for branding the whole community of migrants in the State, whose number could be anywhere between 20 lakhs and 25 lakhs, as villains. Incidents of heinous crimes against migrant workers in which the culprits are natives are not rare. It was just a few days ago that a mob lynched a 32-year-old worker from Malda, West Bengal, at Anchal in Kollam district by accusing him of stealing chicken, but a native vouched that the chicken he was carrying at the time of the attack was sold by him. The gangrape of a young Bengali woman in Kannur by native truck drivers in December 2011 had made the headlines in the Kerala media. The gang brutally raped the woman on the banks of a river after tying up her two companions — both Bengalis — to the truck and left her naked on the road. About 20 construction workers hailing from West Bengal had to be hospitalised with serious injuries after a mob of local people attacked them in Kayamkulam, Alappuzha, in September 2011 on the charge of mobile phone theft.

It is an irony that Kerala, which is witness to inhuman discrimination against its own people in the Gulf, is subjecting the migrants from other Indian States to undergo the same in Kerala.

Kerala has been a migrant economy at least for the past four decades. Whatever progress Kerala and its people have achieved on any front has been based on the money brought in by those toiling in the deserts of Arabian Gulf in inhuman climatic and labour conditions. Stories of their hardship like betrayal by agents, ditching by employers, non-payment of wages, illegal confiscation of travel documents by sponsors, non-availability of treatment, etc, are abound. Migrants in Kerala are some kind of a replacement of workforce that the State has lost. The natives have left back a vacuum of workforce in the State by emigrating to, mostly, the Arabian Gulf; and workers from other States like Assam, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar are filling that vacuum.

The other irony is that most of these migrant workers are doing the same jobs most of the Keralites in the Gulf were doing here and are doing there. If the Gulf for the Keralites is the place where money can be minted, Kerala is the Gulf for workers from other Indian States. Many sociologists are of the opinion that the contempt of the Keralites for the migrant workers from other Indian States is a creation of their ragging mentality. It is a farce: What they get from their Arabian masters, they give it to the migrants here.

The debate over the NRC issue in Assam is taking place in Kerala in these circumstances. It is pointed out that a good number of the so-called Assamese and Bengali migrants in Kerala could actually be people from Bangladesh. That, to an extent, is a statement of fact. Interactions with many of these migrants, especially the young, prove that they cannot say for sure that they are not of Bangladeshi origin. Acting on Intelligence reports, the Kerala Police had held 16 Bangladeshis from a migrant workers’ camp near the Kochi airport on November 11, 2012. Police and the NIA have several times come across evidence that establish that people with Bangladeshi origin but posing as workers from West Bengal and Assam have been involved in serious crimes, including anti-national activities, like dealing in counterfeit currencies. Intelligence agencies and even sections of police and other State authorities reasonably believe that camps of migrant workers in places like Perumbavoor  — which allegedly has a minimum of 3,00,000 migrants  — can be havens for illegal immigrants. As many of these workers do not have identity papers and because of language problems the authorities have, it is extremely difficult to identify the people from Bangladesh from among the community of migrants.

At present, the Kerala Government does not have any means of calculating the total number of migrant workers in the State or the number of migrants from each of the other States. As per informal and rough estimates, a minimum of 20 lakh to 25 lakh people from other States, most of them from West Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Jharkhand, are working in the sectors of construction, farming, hotel-restaurant, etc.

There have been official efforts to register them with the State Labour Department but the response it received was not encouraging. Plans to make these workers fill up registration forms seeking their details are sure to invite criticism. Such exercises are seen as improper because every Indian citizen has the right and freedom to work and live in any State. It is in this context that calls are strengthening for effective and practical exercises for finding the “illegal” elements among the migrant workers. However, it will be dangerous if such genuine concerns are allowed to get mixed up with the general abhorrence found among many Keralites for the “other”.

(The writer is Kochi-based Senior Editor, The Pioneer)

 
 
 
 
 

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