At Ahmedabad’s Kalupur train station, small knots of people sit huddled in corners. In the bustle of the station they stand out because of their very stillness and the fact that they are not Gujaratis. Their clothes—some of the women have half-veiled their faces—and the segregation between men and women differentiate them from the local people. Then there is their luggage: bundles of clothes and vessels. These are people going away for a long period or for good. They are most likely migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and they are leaving because they are being subjected to targeted violence.
When this correspondent approached them, the women huddled lower. One of the men stood up and answered in the affirmative when asked if they were waiting for the night train to Uttar Pradesh. The story unfolded hesitantly and never quite fully. Yes, they were from U.P. They had been working at a construction site in Gandhinagar district. They said they had not been directly threatened but were leaving because (long pause) it was the festival season and there was no work to be had. Would they return after the festival season? No, they had no plans. They would look for work elsewhere.
That last line belied the festival excuse. For one thing, work, especially in construction, does not come to a halt during Navaratri in Gujarat. Also, people going away on leave are unlikely to carry all their household items with them. Another man, bolder than the rest perhaps because he had no family with him, said he was leaving because he was forced to. He said the landlord of the room he rented had told him to leave immediately and never to return because he did not want his “type” of person in his house. “He didn’t say Bihari but that is what he meant,” said the man, who declined to give any personal details. There was little doubt that these were migrant workers who were leaving the State under duress.
A video doing the rounds on WhatsApp, shot in Uvarsad village in Gandhinagar district, shows a former Gujarat Congress leader named Mahotji Thakor belligerently gesticulating and pointing a finger at a couple of men who listen silently to his rant in Hindi. He says: “We don’t want migrants from U.P. and Bihar in our village. Take the first train and leave. Later don’t say you weren’t warned. I’ve come here to give you a warning.” In between his harangue there are subdued responses from the men—“yes sir, no sir,” they say softly in Hindi.
On September 28, a 14-month-old girl in Himmatnagar taluk in Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat was raped. The crime was apparently committed by a man from Bihar. The toddler survived and is now reportedly out of danger. And the man was apprehended. On September 29, members of the Thakor community, to which the toddler belongs, attacked colonies of migrant workers in Sabarkantha and Mehsana districts. On September 30, a protest march was organised by the community, which belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC).
Meanwhile, community leaders incited the people by blaming “outsiders” for the attack on the child. Thakor leaders continued to raise the tempo and the mobs turned violent, barging into establishments and demanding that migrant workers be sacked. The violence spread all across the State. The police then conducted a flag march and assured the workers of their safety. By then, more than 50 cases of violence had been registered and around 400 people arrested. From September 29, migrant workers had been subjected to 10 days of threats, intimidation and violence.
Fearful for their lives, the workers began a mass exodus from Gujarat. The Sabarmati Express, Agra Superfast and Jan Sadharan Express trains from Ahmedabad were inundated with families. Long-distance bus companies found they had to press more vehicles into service. Those who could not get on to the long-distance trains made it a priority to first get out of the State before they got onward tickets.
While it is impossible to get an accurate figure, it is estimated that in those 10 days close to 50,000 workers were forced to leave Gujarat. The Gujarat administration tried to downplay the exodus by saying that people were leaving for the festival season, but north Indians do not traditionally celebrate Navaratri. If the government was referring to the north Indian festival of Chhath Puja, which is in mid November, it is highly unlikely that poor unskilled workers in such high numbers would leave their jobs a month before the actual festival, risking a loss of wages. An Indian Railways official said that the Railways registered an increase of more than 130 per cent in outward travel when the threats and aggression were at their peak.
The rape of the child set off the attacks, but the rage was fuelled by deeper socio-economic reasons. “The attacks are a symptom of jobless growth,” said Achyut Yagnik of Setu, a centre for social knowledge and action in Ahmedabad. This time, it was the Thakors who reacted, but it could be anyone else another time using an incident to express the frustration of financial insecurity.
Yagnik said: “Youngsters are badly affected by [lack of] job growth. Almost everyone in Gujarat has at least finished their schooling but they are unable to get jobs. Narendra Modi supported big industries like Reliance and Adani but this was at the cost of small and medium enterprises [SMEs]. [Some] 25 per cent of the State’s SMEs have closed down because of lack of support from the government. Many Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) complexes are shut. Everyone knows that the employment of local youngsters is done by SMEs. If these are shut there are no jobs.”
He added: “The big companies are automated or outsource work. This didn’t happen in one shot, else there would have been protests. It was a slow process. And even if it was noticed it would not have been acknowledged because the middle class and the media in Gujarat are Hindutva-ised, so no one will speak or write about jobless growth. The government employs diversionary tactics. They point out rising figures of exports and high manufacturing growth, they say the bottom line of most companies’ accounts shows healthy growth. Yes, growth for the investors and the owners, but there are no jobs. Finally it is politicians and big industry that benefit.”
Urbanisation in Gujarat has been rapid. Even small villages are urbanised and the local people opt for the jobs in shopping centres and other urban facilities, shunning heavy labour. Thus, a vacuum was created and labour from U.P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other States was drawn here. They worked at construction sites, farms, salt pans, brick kilns, ceramic factories, and security agencies, in the powerloom industry, and as gardeners and vendors. These are jobs that the local people are not keen to hold.
In Alang, for instance, there is not a single Gujarati worker. Yagnik said that Thakor youths looked only for ”sophisticated jobs” in malls, at high-end consumer durable stores, etc. They are essentially marginal farmers mainly in north Gujarat and around Ahmedabad—both areas that have seen very rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. They are lured by the quick money of selling land but after that they do not know what to do because they have no higher education or qualifications for skilled jobs. Thus, many of them are jobless and this is where the resentment begins.
Take, for example, the Thakor strongholds of Sabarkantha and Banaskantha. These were undeveloped districts in north Gujarat. Once the Thakors started selling their land, small SMEs came up. In one stretch from village Harsol to village Gambhoi (close to the area where the child was raped), 25 to 30 hectares have been taken over by marble polishing units. The workers are all from outside Gujarat. Alpesh Thakor, a Congress leader, has been demanding 80 per cent of the jobs for the local people after the attacks on the migrant workers, but even in Thakor strongholds, youths from that community refuse to work in local industries. Yagnik rhetorically asked: “Are the locals willing to do the work the migrant workers did?”
When Yagnik talks of politicians benefiting, he refers to the political rise of relatively or completely unknown men who have benefited from the unrest that stems from socio-economic issues. The Una incident, for instance, saw the rise of Jignesh Mevani as a strong representative of Dalits. This time, it is Alpesh Thakor. Ashok Shrimali of Setu described him as “politically very ambitious and very influential among his people”. Shrimali added: “The Congress has realised the importance of Thakors because of their numbers. Koli OBCs (of whom the Thakors are a part) form 20 per cent of the population. That’s more than the Dalit vote. Alpesh got the ticket in the last election and was elected MLA. He’s a successful businessman and he’s worked on social causes within his community by organising an anti-liquor campaign and an education drive.”
He is already an MLA and a very visible face of Thakors in Gujarat. He is also the Congress general secretary in charge of Bihar.
The politics of the attacks is interesting. The attacks were fuelled by Thakor leaders who are Congressmen. Oddly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took a while to respond to the situation. An informed source said: “[Chief Minister Vijay] Rupani is a district-level leader. He and his Ministers didn’t seem to realise the importance of what was happening or the impact it could have on them.” Another source said: “Rupani does what Delhi tells him to. He takes no initiative.”
There has been no comment from Prime Minister Modi on the attacks in his home State. BJP president Amit Shah did react but only after Sanjay Nirupam, president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee who is of Bihari origin, reminded the BJP about the importance of keeping U.P. and Bihar happy before the 2019 general election. Yagnik believes that “there is a considerable decline among politicians and academicians in Gujarat since all are RSS appointees”. This ultimately leads to political bankruptcy and “will be self-destructive”.
The attacks and subsequent exodus of migrant workers has slowed down commerce in Gujarat considerably. In the Mehsana GIDC, for instance, more than half the workers were migrants. Losses from the stoppage of work were estimated at around Rs.25 crore. In the industrial hubs of Surat and Ahmedabad, migrant workers comprise close to 70 per cent of the workforce. The exodus was large enough for the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce to write to the Chief Minister urging the State to work towards establishing industrial peace.
The annual Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit will be held in January and there is apprehension that this episode could damage the BJP’s showcase. Already, the statistics are not encouraging. Figures from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy for February 2018 showed that Gujarat had an unemployment rate of 9.5 per cent.
The State government will hopefully realise that besides the natural right to work anywhere in the country, migrants contribute considerably to the State’s economy. Perhaps the State BJP will also accept its own role in what happened by its failure in not supporting SMEs, which are crucial for local employment.