Friday, Jun 02, 2023

Tamil Nadu, a migrant story: When a CM threw a ‘Bada Khana’ for workers who helped build a Secretariat

There was biryani, there were songs, there was dance to 'Khaike paan Banaras wala', and there was a speech in Tamil by Karunanidhi, which was translated into Hindi

Tamil Nadu migrantsIn 2010, PM Manmohan Singh inaugurates the Tamil Nadu Secretariat complex, with CM M Karunanidhi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and BJP leader B S Yediyurappa, among others, looking on. (Photo: Wikicommons)
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Tamil Nadu, a migrant story: When a CM threw a ‘Bada Khana’ for workers who helped build a Secretariat
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AT A TIME when rumoured attacks on migrant labourers in Tamil Nadu have set off panic, requiring the intervention of Chief Ministers of two states, there is a lesson to be learnt from another CM, from another time.

The year was 2010, the CM was the late M Karunanidhi, an avowed atheist who rose from the social justice politics of the Dravidian movement. The occasion was the inauguration of a new Secretariat complex, at Omandurar in Chennai. It had been a grand project, involving about 5,000 workers from North India, among others, working for nearly two years.

Karunanidhi had a keen interest in the project and used to regularly visit the construction site to monitor the progress. As the Secretariat neared completion, recalls Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, a DMK MP, the CM suggested an event to celebrate the workers’ contribution — “on the scale of the popular Chennai Sangamam festival”.

So, a decision was taken to hold a lavish feast – a “Bada Khana” — for the largely Hindi-speaking migrant labourers who had worked on the new Secretariat complex. A date was fixed for soon after the Pongal festival and the Sangamam season, says Kanimozhi.

Karunanidhi’s office contacted the famous Buhari Hotel on Mount Road in Chennai to supply its mutton biryani. Apart from the food, performances were lined up of North Indian music groups, as well as other art forms in various languages.

S Ramasundaram, one of the senior-most IAS officers at the time, says that on the day though, they ran into an unexpected problem. As they waited for the CM to arrive, the workers sat silently, intimidated by the occasion and the pomp.

“We decided to break the ice by playing some popular Hindi songs, but the workers still didn’t stir much. It was then that a journalist suggested that everyone dance, and he himself took the first steps. As the song ‘Khaike paan Banaras wala’ from the Amitabh Bachchan-hit Don came on, people finally got up and started dancing. Soon, the entire crowd was dancing and laughing… which is when Karunanidhi and his son, then Deputy CM M K Stalin, arrived,” Ramasundaram, who also shook a leg that day, laughs.


Karunanidhi also addressed the migrant workers at the event, with senior IAS officer Pankaj Bansal translating his speech into Hindi. He acknowledged the workers’ contribution and expressed his gratitude towards them, and chuckled that it was the first time that his speech in Tamil was being translated into Hindi for an audience in Tamil Nadu, a state known for its anti-Hindi agitations.

However, those agitations apart, migration has been very much a part of life in Tamil Nadu – both outbound and in. This is unlike other states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra, for example, known for movements (often violent) against especially Tamil migrants.

When Kerala’s labour force made a beeline for West Asia for construction jobs in the 1980s, Tamil workers filled the void there. The vacancy that emerged in Tamil Nadu was, in turn, filled by workers from Kannada and Telugu. Its hotel industry has a large section of workers from the Northeast, who assimilate more easily here particularly given their ease with English.


Tamils have also moved out for years to other countries, especially East Asia, apart from the Gulf. If the Tamil Nadu Secretariat was built largely with North Indian labour, Tamils are the hands behind many projects like Marina Bay in Singapore.

There may be some instances of media profiling of “Vada Manila (North Indians)” after crimes such as bank robberies, and police drives to collect tenants’ information from localities might be often seen as targeted, but Tamil Nadu is largely a safe haven for outsiders.

In fact, even in the wake of the rumours, and panic calls from family members, migrant workers repeatedly told The Indian Express that they were paid and treated better in Tamil Nadu than back home by employers.

CM Stalin underlined this in his bid to quell the “fake rumours”, quoting the famous verse in Purananooru, a classical Tamil work from Sangam literature — ‘Yaathum oore, Yaavarum kelir’, or ‘Every town is our hometown; every man, our kinsman’. That verse finishes with these equally powerful words: ‘We aren’t impressed by the mighty; even more, we don’t scorn the lowly too.’

The Secretariat complex inaugurated by Karunanidhi was later converted into a multispeciality hospitality by his rival and AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa. But, if Karunanidhi was alive, how would we have handled these rumours, linked by both the Tamil Nadu and Bihar governments to BJP leaders trying to create mischief?

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Ramasundaram, who knew him well, thinks the CM who was also a celebrated screenwriter may have countered them with a story about a girl from Nagaland who married a guy from Nagapattinam; or a poem of love set in Chhattisgarh to Chennai; a screenplay travelling from Manipur to Mylapore, Trichy to Tripura, or Mizoram to Mayiladuthurai.

First published on: 11-03-2023 at 10:36 IST
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