There’s a certain kind of grief in Suryakumar Roy’s eyes, the kind that doesn’t find expression in words. Nine years ago, the 27-year-old had boarded a general-class compartment of a Kerala-bound train from Malda in West Bengal to escape the poverty back home — like hundreds of thousands before him who had made the 2,500-km journey. In the course of nine years, Suryakumar says, he received nothing but warmth in a state where migrant labourers are a crucial cog in the labour machinery.
What happened on June 24 came as a shock. That day, his paternal uncle Manik Roy (50) was assaulted by two local men on charges of stealing a chicken. Twenty-one days later, Manik died, reportedly due to the injuries sustained in the assault. “I could never imagine such a thing happening to us,” says Roy, sitting on a plastic chair at the shop of an acquaintance in Anchal, a small town in Kollam district.
In Anchal, Manik’s death has reverberated across migrant communities, mostly belonging to West Bengal, Odisha and Assam. Police sources in Anchal say close to 2,000 migrant labourers work within their jurisdiction. Suryakumar’s father was among the first from the family to arrive in Kerala, coming in 2006. Suryakumar, who had studied till Class 7, followed three years later, at his father’s urging. “My father always had good things to say about Kerala. He said the people were polite and he never faced any trouble,” Suryakumar says.
Initially, Suryakumar worked in Mavelikara, but after about a month, moved to Anchal, where he has been working for nine years now. He doesn’t remember exactly when Manik came, but it was two-three years after him, Suryakumar says.
The migrant labourers of Anchal, like in other villages and towns of Kerala, struggle with the language. For those who arrive without any friends or family, this enforces further isolation. Often, members of the community stick to each other, striking few friendships in the society around them.
“It’s their desh (territory), not ours. We don’t want to get involved in any fight. We just work and carry on,” says Kalu, 33, hailing from Midnapore in West Bengal. A daily-wage labourer in the construction sector, he says he couldn’t have earned enough to support his family if he stayed on at home.
Abul Kalam, another Bengali worker in Anchal, came to Kerala as a 14-year-old after dropping out of school. Now 28, Kalam speaks Malayalam fluently, among the few migrant labourers to do so. Raju, a contractor who takes care of the logging business in the area, says he has never had any trouble with his migrant workers. “Just as we Malayalis go to the Gulf to get higher pay, they come here. Kerala is their Gulf,” he says.
A 2013 study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation put the migrant worker population in Kerala at 25 lakh.
Recounting what happened on the evening of June 24, local police say it was Sunday and Manik’s day off. He and friend Deepak had purchased chicken from their usual shop, run by a local, Sundaran. Manik was fond of chicken, and Sundays were reserved for the naadan (locally bred) variety, which he would cook himself.
Police say while Manik and Deepak were returning home, they were intercepted by 60-year-old Shashidhara Kurup, who runs a poultry business. Kurup, whose chickens had been stolen, questioned the duo about the chicken. Manik’s assertion that he had bought the chicken didn’t satisfy Kurup. Kurup is said to have called over his friend, Asif (23). The two reportedly beat Manik.
Manik, bleeding profusely from his nose, was taken to St Joseph’s Mission Hospital in Anchal. After Manik’s statement, police picked up Kurup and Asif, says Inspector Sathi Kumar. “The two were later let off on bail. An X-ray did not indicate any fracture. Manik was discharged the next day.”
Later, Manik began experiencing headaches, Suryakumar says, and thrice went to the local Surya hospital. A doctor, who saw Manik at the hospital, says he only complained of frequent headaches and never spoke of the assault. Suryakumar says Manik thought the doctor couldn’t understand him due to the language difference. “Kaku (uncle) told me he wanted to go home.”
By July 14, Manik’s situation had worsened. The family decided to take him to the Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram. “But, on the way, he died,” says Suryakumar. The post-mortem confirmed death due to injuries sustained at the back of his neck and head. Forensic experts said the June 24 assault could have resulted in blunt trauma to his brain, leading to cerebral edema. Following his death, police re-arrested Kurup and Asif, charging them with murder, and held one more person, Vishnu.
Incidentally, Kurup never registered a case of theft at the police station over his chickens. Suryakumar says it fell upon him to tell the family back home what had happened. Finally, he choked on the phone and got someone else to break the news. “My aunt is disturbed since kaku’s death. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she laughs. Sometimes, she goes to the nearby river in their village Rajnagar all by herself,” he says.
Suryakumar also grieves alone. “Earlier, after work, kaku and I would meet at the Anchal bus stand every day. We would have chai and golpo (conversation). Now, there’s no one to talk to. I go, have a cup of chai and come back.”
Soon, that may change. One and a half years ago, Manik’s son Mantosh too had arrived in Kerala, having dropped out of school in Class 8 due to their financial situation. Back home tending to his mother right now, the 20-year-old says, “My father was a seedha-saadha log and would never get involved in fights. He was happy working in Kerala. I am not scared of going there. Right now, my mother is unwell, so I have to take care of her. But in one or two months, I will come to Kerala. I have to earn to support my family.”