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Gujarat migrants’ exodus: India’s Iron Man set to be honoured by PM as immigrants threatened and chased out

On 31 October, the 143rd birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pay tribute to India’s Iron Man—who integrated former princely states to forge independent India’s heterogeneous identity—by unveiling the Statue of Unity in Gujarat. Against this backdrop is the irony of what is occurring in the prime minister’s home state: The exodus of migrant workers, who are being systematically targeted, beaten, threatened and chased out.

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in Ahmedabad seen leaving for their native places. PTI

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in Ahmedabad seen leaving for their native places. PTI

The vicious wave of attacks began after a Bihari migrant allegedly raped a 14-month-old infant in Sabarkantha district last week. The anti-migrants attacks, never before witnessed in Gujarat, reflect the politics of hate and fear which not only afflicts Gujarat, but has spread across the country, according to socio-political observers.

Netagiri is changing into dadagiri,” said Vidyut Joshi, a leading sociologist in Gujarat who specialises in immigration. He means that political power no longer supplies promised goods or services to people such as millions of jobs. “Therefore, people’s perception of what power is has also changed. If you can frighten someone, you’re a successful leader; if not, you fail.”

This is the reason Gujarat’s socio-political observers remain sceptical about the attacks on ‘outsiders’ being triggered by the rape of the child, who belongs to the Thakor community. Most Hindi-speaking migrants are fleeing from areas where Thakors seemingly want to avenge the crime. However, Sudarshan Iyengar, former vice-chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, says, “The condemnable Sabarkantha incident is only a ruse because locals are attacking factories and saying migrants are stealing jobs.”

A Right to Information (RTI) query filed by activist Bharathsinh Jhala in 2017 supports Iyengar’s claims: Between 2002 and 2009, 324 rapes of 7 to 11-year-olds were reported in Ahmedabad. “Those incidents didn’t trigger an exodus. But when WhatsApp users are bombarded by rumours of child-lifting and lynching in Gujarat and outside, they are incited to commit violence through fear,” said Jhala.

There are fewer industries in north Gujarat—where most Thakors stay—compared to the rest of the state. The community is less economically powerful and several youth are unemployed, but it is much better off than migrants or other groups native to Gujarat. “Mehsana, Sabarkantha, Surat, Bhavnagar and neighbouring areas are worst hit by the ‘non-Gujarati’ sentiment. But Thakors in these districts experience a sense of unrest that is still not real. Scheduled caste and tribals native to Gujarat work in very bad conditions compared to Thakors,” Joshi pointed out.

Migrant workers, who accept lower pay for longer working hours in poorer conditions, form the fulcrum on which Modi’s Gujarat Model moves smoothly. “Without migrant workers from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, the much-acclaimed Gujarat Model of economic development could not have sustained,” said Joshi.

In 2011, the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India, an autonomous body set up by the state government in Gandhinagar, estimated that if all current investment proposals work out, Gujarat would fall short of 45 lakh workers: meaning it would have to keep its doors open to migrant workers. With 35 lakh unemployed and roughly 30 lakh migrant workers, had these investments materialised as planned, there would be no scope for local resentment to outsiders ‘stealing’ jobs.

Economists calculate unemployment by estimating how many people are willing to work at the existing wage rate but find no takers. “Local labour in north Gujarat is unemployed by choice because they have shelter and food and some family income too. These locals now want to push excess labour out of Gujarat, create a shortage and force factories to hire them at higher wages,” said Iyengar. This is also the result of an emerging politics of hate and fear. “It’s not unlike the violence Shiv Sena directed against immigrants in Maharashtra,” said Joshi. “Leaders make tall promises which remain unfulfilled. This spurs disaffection especially among youth. Then politics steps in.”

Politics has turned individuals into majorities and fosters a culture of taking offence and finding new targets for rage. Congress MLA Alpesh Thakor’s divisive remarks made a month ago are being seen as a provocation to incite Thakor mobs to attack ‘outsiders’. As head of the OSS (OBC, SC, ST) Ekta Manch, his accusation that migrants commit crimes in Gujarat is an instance of caste groups being cynically exploited to create monoliths.

Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s aggressive demand for reservation for his dominant community similarly shook Gujarat two years ago. He’d boldly declared that reservation should be withdrawn from all other social groups if they are denied its benefits.

“Indian politics was always defined by caste and religion, but now things seem to be worse,” said Hanif Lakdawala, who runs Sanchetna, a social organisation in Ahmedabad. “Many middle-class Gujaratis now seem to believe that they are the world’s best. They claim that Gujaratis on the Indian cricket team are the best players, richest Gujaratis are more successful than other wealthy people and see their own personal success in BJP’s national political growth. Their pride knows no bounds.” This is linked with a growing—though it was always present—disdain towards Hindi and contempt for ‘Bhaiyyajis’, Gujarati slang for non-Gujarati-speakers.

“Phrases like ‘1,000 Gujarati-1 Bihari’ are commonly used to mean that people from Bihar are way too clever. The police have started addressing Ahmedabad’s Muslims as ‘Bangladeshi’. So, national politics over identity affects people here, especially the young,” said Jhala. Joshi experienced the effects of some misplaced caste pride earlier this year. Surprisingly, it was for a paper he wrote in 1987 which went relatively unnoticed. His article examines Sanskritisation among members of the Koli caste, who’d started identifying themselves as Kshatriya in the mid-eighties.

“Those who claim Kolis were always Kshatriya have now taken offence and are issuing death threats,” said Joshi. Sanskritisation is a process first observed and documented by sociologist MN Srinivas, which refers to a process wherein castes on lower rungs of the Hindu Varna ladder adopt practices of a higher one.  The violence directed against outsiders is not just pent-up frustration finding an outlet but also resentment against the visible prosperity and consumption of a large, growing middle class. Cars, gadgets and restaurants create a sense of deprivation among those who cannot afford such accoutrements of development.

In the past, caste politics accompanied exchange of ideas. So, in the 1960s, Patidars were given land taken from Kshatriyas, Joshi points out. “Even the Narmada Dam construction was opposed by many groups but people ultimately fell in line with the law,” Joshi said. “Now, there are no guarantees.”

Updated Date: Oct 09, 2018 18:05 PM

Updated: October 9, 2018 — 2:12 pm
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