In Tamil Nadu, it is payback time for rumour mongers. On March 14, BJP spokesperson K. Prashant Umrao moved the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking anticipatory bail after the Thoothukudi Police registered a case against him for a tweet that created fear among migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. Prashant falsely claimed on Twitter that migrant labourers from Bihar were being wantonly killed in Tamil Nadu, and that the State was not safe for them. The tweet, posted at 4.39 pm on March 2, had nearly 5 lakh views.
Prashant, whose Twitter bio says that he was a “standing counsel in Supreme Court of India for the State of Goa and a Spokesperson of Uttar Pradesh BJP”, has deleted his tweet since, but he has retweeted BJP leader and former MP Hari Manjhi’s false claim (in Hindi) that in Tamil Nadu, “where labourers were being beaten up, Bihar’s deputy chief minister, Tejashwi Yadav, was celebrating in the company of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin”.
The right-wing troll army from across the country set to work, pushing the misinformation campaign. Many Hindi news channels, a few YouTubers, and extreme right-wing websites, joined in. With thousands of migrant labourers leaving Tamil Nadu in panic, industries, restaurants, and the construction sector have been affected.
Politics of fear
In reality, there were no such incidents of migrants being killed or beaten up on a daily basis in Tamil Nadu. The campaign appeared to have two objectives, if the BJP’s opponents are to be believed. First, attack Tejashwi Yadav, whose party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), supported Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), allowing him to continue as Bihar’s Chief Minister after he ended his party’s alliance with the BJP in August 2022. (The JD(U) has 45 MLAs and the RJD 79 in the 243-member Assembly.) Second, put Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on the back foot. Stalin is one of the main votaries of a Congress-led alliance as an alternative to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
It was not merely Tejashwi who was targeted; his father, Lalu Prasad, and his mother and former Chief Minister Rabri Devi were also questioned by the CBI in a land-for-jobs case in March. Tejashwi himself is accused in the case, in which the ED searched his and his sisters’ houses in Delhi. The CBI has summoned him in the same case, which goes back to 2004-2009, when Lalu Prasad was Railway Minister: the CBI alleges that lands were transferred to the family in lieu of jobs in the Railways.
“At least a dozen entrepreneurs that this correspondent spoke to were confident that the workers would return once they realise that the videos in circulation were fake.”
Stalin, apart from rubbishing the third-front strategy put up recently by Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, is also seen as the leader of India’s anti-Hindi imposition movement. “One country, one language” is one of the goals of the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. Stalin claimed in a statement on March 9: “One can understand the agenda if you notice the fact that lies [about attacks on migrant workers] were spread the day after I stressed the necessity of unity among parties opposed to the BJP at the national level.”
Prashant is currently on transit bail, and the court has asked the police for a counter affidavit. The Tamil Nadu Police also registered cases against Mohammed Tanvir, Editor of the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar. The Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, C. Sylendra Babu, told mediapersons on March 6 that five FIRs had so far been filed for spreading misinformation. Among those named in the FIRs were the BJP’s Bihar Twitter handle and the BJP’s Tamil Nadu State president K. Annamalai for spreading “false propaganda”. By March 9, 11 more were booked and three arrested for spreading rumours.
Soon after, the Tamil Nadu Police ramped up its social media monitoring and began responding to almost all of the misinformation. For example, on March 3, the Twitter handle of the Hindi news channel, Zee Bihar Jharkhand, put up a video claiming that the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), a political party founded by a Mumbai-based film set designer from Bihar who is desperately looking for publicity after all his MLAs switched over to the BJP in 2022, had set up a helpline for Bihari workers in Tamil Nadu. Instead of directly claiming attacks on Biharis, Zee Bihar Jharkhand cleverly claimed that the VIP leader has condemned the attack on the labourers.
The Tamil Nadu Police responded: “In this video, it has been incorrectly claimed that Hindi-speaking people from Bihar are being assaulted by Tamil-speaking people of Tamil Nadu. In fact, in Tamil Nadu, migrant workers from other States of India are safe and secure...The district and State administration are already abreast with such misleading social media posts, videos and newspaper reports and taking necessary remedial measures...Besides, they have also given helpline numbers for the migrant workers to sort out any issues faced by them.”
Stalin went on an overdrive. He said on March 4: “Tamil Nadu government is committed to protecting migrant workers. You don’t need to fear...Those who spread rumours are against India’s integrity...I request media organisations, television channels and social media users to act responsibly and not publish or forward unverified claims...I have also spoken to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and I have assured him that all migrants here help in Tamil Nadu’s development and we will not let anything untoward happen to them.”
Both Tamil Nadu and Bihar governments acted quickly and in tandem. A team from Bihar came to Tamil Nadu to meet workers, and local Superintendents of Police, District Collectors and senior government officials interacted with migrant workers, promising them safety.
Hindi imposition issue
Though Prashant told the Madurai Bench that it was misled and that he was not the creator of the tweets, there is no remorse. He later retweeted Amit Malviya on March 5: “There is no denying the fact that DMK’s regressive hate politics has put lives and livelihood of not just migrant workers but also industries in Tamil Nadu, that rely on them for operations, in peril. Under pressure from industry, DMK govt had to issue a statement in Hindi.”
This is the new angle that the BJP has latched on to: DMK leaders engaged in hate politics against those who speak Hindi. Annamalai twisted speeches of prominent DMK leaders out of context to make it seem as if they were spreading hate against Hindi speakers.
In a tweet on March 4, he said: “DMK MP’s comments on North Indians, DMK Minister calling them Panipuri wala, and their alliance partners demanding their exodus have triggered what we see today. The people, the Government & the Police do not endorse the view of DMK & their alliance partners.” In his next tweet, he added: “The divide that DMK always stood for is coming back to bite them, and it is now their responsibility to fix this situation and is an opportunity for them to put an end to their defunct propaganda.”
The right-wing ecosystem tweeted images of DMK minister Udhayanidhi Stalin wearing a “ Hindi Teriyadhu Poda” [I don’t know Hindi, get lost] T-shirt. Images of actor Prakash Raj, who conveyed the same sentiment in Kannada, also made the rounds. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s warning to those giving away government jobs to north Indians over Tamil people was prominently featured as “hate speech” against Hindi speakers.
Annamalai and right-wing operators on social media conflated two different issues—the lot of migrant workers in Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu’s strong anti-Hindi stance. Dravidian leaders, including those from the AIADMK, which is in alliance with the BJP, have often criticised the attempts made by the likes of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to impose Hindi on non-Hindi speaking people, and Union Ministers intentionally sending replies in Hindi to Tamil-speaking MPs. In fact, it was the AIADMK Cabinet that rejected the new education policy’s attempt at Hindi imposition, and insisted that Tamil Nadu will only follow a two-language formula.
DMK MP K. Kanimozhi, CPI(M) MP Su. Venkatesan, and others have protested against this move of the Union government, and have often raised the issue of Hindi imposition in Parliament. But the dominance of Hindi speakers in public sector units such as the Railways, and their postings in places such as Tamil Nadu, are realities that have not changed even after the issue was repeatedly flagged.
Beware of fakes
Regardless of the politics behind the recent incident, restaurants, small workshops, and construction firms are worried about labourers not returning after their Holi break. “I have taken a contract for supply of parts. Now I cannot go back on it. I am unable to find workers here. If I do not deliver on time, I will be in trouble,” said a small business owner. In a restaurant, this translates to new hands from Tamil Nadu being pushed into front-end jobs without adequate training. But at least a dozen entrepreneurs that this correspondent spoke to were confident that the workers would return once they realise that the videos in circulation were fake.
On the other end of the spectrum are migrant workers like Raju. Like many of his friends from Madhubani, Bihar, he was scared to celebrate Holi in Chennai. He said that there was a steady stream of videos of migrant workers from north India being attacked landing up on his and his friends’ phones.
“We thought we will be beaten up while going to work or while coming back,” said Raju, who has been in Chennai for over two decades. Asked if he was ever attacked during his stay in Chennai, he said there has been no such incident. His family was in Chennai, and they felt comfortable too. His son attends college, speaks Tamil fluently, and believes that Chennai is his home.
Anecdotal evidence from across Chennai, Tiruppur, Coimbatore, Salem, and other parts of Tamil Nadu, indicates that WhatsApp videos are drumming up fear among migrant workers. “Our cook, who is from Bihar, comes early these days,” said a homemaker from Chennai. “He is scared that someone would attack him in the night if he keeps to his earlier timings,” she added.
There was another development: some migrant workers were trying to create fake videos of attacks and sharing them on social media platforms. In one instance, a person sleeping on a pavement in Tambaram was shown as a migrant who was beaten up. In another instance, a video of migrant workers being attacked in Tiruppur was found to be fake, and the person who posted this on Facebook, Prashant Kumar (32), was arrested in Jharkhand. Apparently, one of the accused persons told the police that he wanted to become popular by posting such videos. This remains a persistent threat at a time when controversial content drives traffic on social media sites.
- The right-wing has been spreading misinformation about attacks on migrant workers in Tamil Nadu.
- In reality, there were no incidents of migrants being killed or beaten up on a daily basis in Tamil Nadu.
- One of the aims of the campaign seems to be to put Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on the back foot since Stalin is one of the main votaries of a Congress-led alliance as an alternative to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
- The BJP’s Tamil Nadu president K. Annamalai and right-wing operators on social media conflated two different issues—the lot of migrant workers in Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu’s strong anti-Hindi stance.
- Restaurants, small workshops, and construction firms are now worried about labourers not returning after their Holi break.
- Anecdotal evidence from indicates that WhatsApp videos are drumming up fear among migrant workers.