The rape of a 14-month-old child in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, allegedly by a migrant from Bihar, has led to threats and mob violence on Hindi-speaking north Indian migrants in the state. It is widely believed that the promotion of nativist sentiments through a speech by Alpesh Thakor, a Congress party MLA in Gujarat and convener of the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena (GKTS), played a role.
While the Gujarat High Court has appointed a judge to fast-track the trial of this rape case, at least 50,000 migrants, mainly belonging to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have left from various parts of Gujarat but mostly from northern Gujarat districts of Sabarkantha and Mehsana. In the last couple of weeks, the police has arrested more than 300 people for mob violence.
This escalation of aggressive nativism relates to economic frustrations due to the job market. It exposes fault-lines in the state’s much-hyped economic model known for its “Vibrant Gujarat” summits, Special Economic Zones and its solid infrastructure facilities such as power and road transportation.
Vibrant Gujarat summits are not making adequate impact on the ground. While Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs) worth more than 20 lakh crore were signed in the 2011 summit, less than 10 per cent of this amount has actually been invested. The Gujarat government has stopped revealing the total investment figure. Not only have actual investments diminished, but they have not created many jobs. In the Socio-Economic Review of 2017-18 by the Gujarat government, it is reported that from January 1983 till July 31 2017, investments worth 2.75 lakh crore have resulted in only 11 lakh jobs through 6, 251 projects.
Over the last decade, the “Gujarat model” is generating more jobless growth because of the promotion of mega projects, which are capital intensive, at the expense of the SMEs, which are more labour intensive. This strategy has something to do with the rise of crony capitalism in the state, at the expense of its traditional entrepreneurial ethos, which the transition of the Patels from farming to industry exemplified in the 20th century.
Micro, small, and medium scale enterprises have been the key provider of jobs in Gujarat employing more than 6 million people according to the NSSO’s 73rd round survey in 2015-16. While the Patels and Jains command dominance in the MSME sector with more capital-intensive units, communities like the OBCs — to which the Kshatriya-Thakors belong — have remained restricted to micro enterprises with lower capital. MSMEs, particularly the micro units, have been most hit by the Modi government’s economic decisions such as demonetisation and by the banking crisis resulting from the decline of the cooperative banks as well as the rise of NPAs.
The growth rate of its industry has made Gujarat one of the most attractive states for migrants from UP, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, net migration among the 20 to 29-year-old group to Gujarat, stood at nearly 3.5 lakh, which was one of the highest among Indian states. Migrants were prepared to work at lower wage rates and for longer work hours, the feeling of deprivation among the native Gujarati population grew as joblessness increased. Sections of the Patels are asking for the OBC status in order to have access to job quotas, but to no avail.
While violence against the migrants has started in North Gujarat, it has slowly spread to working-class colonies and factories in urban Gujarat at large and the most striking case has probably been Surat city, where a mill-worker from Bihar was allegedly lynched by a mob on October 12 (the police has contested this claim). According to the Migration and its impact on Cities report (2017) by World Economic Forum (WEF), Surat had one of the fastest population growth rates among Indian cities amounting to 55-60 per cent every decade from the 1980s due to internal migration. There are 6 lakh Odiya migrants working in the textile and diamond sectors for instance. From 2001 to 2011, Surat district’s urban population grew by 65 per cent which was a staggeringly high figure vis-à-vis Gujarat’s urban population growth at 36 per cent and the national average of 32 per cent.
The purging of migrants in Gujarat also reflects a transformation in the ideological repertoire of the state. Gujarat has had a strong regionalist tendency as evident in the Maha Gujarat movement which led to the separation of Gujarat from Bombay province on a linguistic basis in 1960.
In the 1980s-90s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan was labelled by both the Congress and the BJP as “anti-Gujarat” because it opposed a dam that would make the river the “jugular vein” of the state’s development. This strong regionalist identity acquired an ethno-religious flavour in the 2000s, when Narendra Modi coupled Hindutva with developmentalism in his definition of the Gujarati asmita. He then projected himself as the protector of the Gujaratis — mostly defined as the Hindus who spoke the local idiom — against both Pakistani Islamists and the UPA government dominated by the Nehru family, which, according to him had never done justice to the Gujarati leaders, including Vallabhbhai Patel.
In current times, regional pride has given space to the kind of nativism the Shiv Sena fostered against South Indians and then North Indians in Bombay/Mumbai. A few days before the rape of a girl child in Sabarkantha, Vijay Rupani had promised to bring a law that would have made it mandatory for firms to employ Gujaratis in at least 80 per cent of its total workforce. This policy — which would imply a definition of “Who is a Gujarati” — not only contradicts the nationalist commitments of the BJP but is also surprising given that the Gujarati community has settled in various parts of the world — such as Africa, UK, USA — for centuries for socio-economic mobility.
Alpesh Thakor is designing a new social coalition which, although it includes Muslims and Christians, rejects the “non-Gujaratis” — especially the Hindi-speaking migrants, who may or may not vote in the state. He is portraying the natives as the victims of development with the construction of migrants as their “other”, creating a new fault-line. In the past, the BJP had portrayed Muslims as the other and, in particular, as the enemies of the Dalits to bolster Hindu unity underpinned by the rising unemployment due to the closure of textile mills where Muslims and Dalits were labourers. Whether Thakor’s strategy will work remains to be seen. In 2012 the Kannadiga pride movement in Karnataka had led to the mass exodus of Northeast migrants from Bangalore without impacting the electoral process.
If the Congress needs an alternative to the brand of identity politics the BJP is exploiting, class may be sufficient, given the rise of inequalities in a state where the number of families living below the poverty line is increasing.
Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Laliwala is an independent researcher on Gujarat’s politics and history based in Ahmedabad.