“It was [some] North Indian media and a few irresponsible people who were sharing unrelated news to create panic. We had to call our families and tell them that all is well here,” a Bihari construction worker in Tamil Nadu told The Leaflet.
ON February 9, when P. Magimaidas, a resident of Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, thrashed migrant workers from northern India on the Vaigai Express running between Chennai and Madurai, nobody expected that it would frighten migrant workers throughout southern India and keep the state government on its toes.
The incident came to public notice when a co-passenger recorded the abuse on his phone and shared it on social media.
The video shows Magimaidas grabbing two migrants by their hair, beating them, and yelling expletives at them and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The video went viral, simmering tensions between Hindi-speaking migrant workers and Tamils.
On February 21, Magimaidas was arrested. He alleged that he lost control when a migrant worker stepped on his feet, in return for which he thrashed them and yelled expletives at them.
By then, various videos of instances unconnected to tensions between Hindi-speaking migrant workers and Tamil locals that occurred in the past in Coimbatore, Tirupur, Hyderabad, and parts of Rajasthan and Karnataka were circulated on social media, instilling panic among migrant workers. To worsen the situation, politicians from both northern and southern India took sides and aired divisive statements.
Challenging the rights to freedom of movement and to work, social media posts claimed that vadakkans (North Indians) have no place in Tamil Nadu and accused them of stealing jobs from locals.
According to a Press Information Bureau (PIB) report, as per the 2011 Census, there are 34,87,974 migrant workers, including 7,13,888 women, in Tamil Nadu. Only Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have more such workers among all states and union territories.
Talking to The Leaflet, Andrew Henry William, who leads work on internal migrants with the Jesuit Migrant Service in Chennai, said that “it was a few North Indian media [outlets] which had ‘screaming’ headlines there locally about alleged tensions between Tamils and North Indian migrants.“
“Yes, there was an incident on a train where a migrant worker was physically abused by a Tamil. Somebody had recorded and shared it. The rest of the videos circulated were old and unrelated,” William added.
According to him, when the Hindi media carried stories, without fact-checking, the families of migrant workers began panicking and started telephoning them.
“You know how the fake news spreads. Other than this, there is no problem at all,” he added.
Following the tensions, William and his team members in Tamil Nadu visited migrant labour camps to pacify the worried workers.
“We even held some online sessions to tell everyone that all is well here and there is nothing to worry about,” he noted.
William has been leading the organisation for nearly ten years, and his team runs informal classes for migrant workers’ children and conducts medical camps for them.
Talking about the supposed workers’ ‘exodus’, he confirmed that it was Holi season and the workers had gone to celebrate the festival with their families.
“Majority of them are back in Tamil Nadu,” William, who visits workers’ camps frequently, said.
Mohan Chand, a 28 year-old construction worker in Chennai from Bihar, told The Leaflet that “all is well and they are safe in Tamil Nadu.”
“It was [some] North Indian media and a few irresponsible people who were sharing unrelated news to create panic. We had to call our families and tell them that all is well here,” Chand added.
Quoting sources, The Indian Express reported that “Jharkhand government officials who visited Tamil Nadu were happy in understanding that their workers are safe.”
Meanwhile, The Hindu reported that the “Economic Offence Unit (EOU) of Bihar police has tightened the noose to catch the mastermind Manish Kashyap who created the panic by spreading fake videos on social media about Bihari migrants being allegedly attacked in Tamil Nadu.”
Talking to The Leaflet, Dr Benoy Peter, Executive Director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, an independent non-profit organisation working with internal migrants in Kerala, also confirmed that “fake news was behind all the panic.”
“What makes me happy is that both states acted immediately and responsibly to control the situation. A delegation from Jharkhand arrived in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Nadu government also worked with the delegation to find solutions. Such visits had never happened in India in the past,” Dr. Peter stated.
Meanwhile, William told us that registration for migrant workers is not happening on the eShram portal properly.
“We are trying to get registration of migrants as much as possible, but these workers don’t carry Aadhaar cards and ration cards with them. So, documentation becomes difficult,” William added.
Developed by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, the eShram portal was built to create a national database of unorganised workers, which is seeded with an individual’s Aadhaar.
According to William, Tamil Nadu supplies one kg of rice for one rupee. But as migrant workers don’t carry ration cards with them, they buy the same card for ₹ 8–10. In the market, other rice prices go to as much as ₹ 30 for a kg.
Right to move and work anywhere in India protected by Constitution
As per Article 19(1)(e) and (g) of the Constitution, all Indian citizens have the fundamental right to reside and settle in any part of India, and to practice any profession, occupation, trade or business.
Globally, Article 13(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. India is a signatory to the UDHR.
Therefore, every Indian has the right to move anywhere in India, settle down there, and work there. Tamils can work in Bihar, and Biharis can work in Tamil Nadu.