The rape of a 14-month-old toddler allegedly by a migrant labourer in Sabarkantha in late September has triggered a series of mob attacks on migrant workers in northern Gujarat, causing a near exodus from the state. Over 400 persons have been arrested in connection with the violence and the state home minister, Pradeepsinh Jadeja, has appealed to the workers to return. It is important that the Gujarat government acts urgently and decisively to contain and counter the anti-migrant sentiment. It is worrisome that this sentiment has found traction in an entrepreneurial state like Gujarat.
The current mob violence against non-Gujaratis is tied to a particular event. However, there is a danger that it could feed off a larger “anti-Outsider” narrative being championed nationally. Within Gujarat, following the Patidar agitation in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections, resentments had been stoked against “outsiders” on the question of jobs. Last month, the state government announced that 80 per cent of factory jobs in the state will be reserved for Gujaratis. This is in spite of a large migrant workforce contributing to Gujarat’s rise as a manufacturing hub. These unorganised workers have shored up the bottom of the labour pyramid, doing menial jobs for low wages. A competitive labour market only helps the economy to grow and, in turn, produce more jobs. Unfortunately, the economic gains facilitated by migration are often ignored by politicians who paint the vulnerable migrant worker as the prime villain for those suffering from unemployment and other hardships. In turn, with no legal safeguards or welfare available to protect them, the migrant workers, from house maids to factory hands, are forced deeper into the margins of social and economic life in the state.
The shrill debate around the National Register for Citizens (NRC) is the latest example of migrant-bashing by politicians. The NRC in Assam emerged from a tortuous political history specific to that region, but BJP leaders now loosely talk about extending it elsewhere. The targeting of the Rohingya, with a well-documented history of state persecution in Myanmar, is another case of keeping this anti-migrant/anti-outsider narrative alive. It is naive to expect that the fears and suspicions triggered by such campaigns can be controlled and contained within a locale or time-frame. The sentiment lingers on to influence people and communities in different sites and contexts. And when the mob takes to the street the victim is not necessarily the suspected illegal “Bangladeshi”. The target could be the migrant labourer from a neighbouring state.