The past few days have been marked by fact-checkers exposing a lot of fake audio-visual content virally circulating on social media pertaining to alleged attacks against migrant workers in Tamil Nadu.
The timing of the videos coincided with the 70th birthday celebration of chief minister M.K. Stalin, an event that saw participation of prominent opposition leaders including Tejashwi Yadav, the deputy chief minister of Bihar. The event had allusions to electorally effective unity among opposition parties in the run up to the 2024 general elections.
Subsequently, the leader of opposition in the Bihar legislative assembly, Vijay Kumar Sinha of the Bharatiya Janata Party, made claims about the purported violence against migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. Despite the videos being fake, it was reported that these effectuated a panic exodus of migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, though the Chief Minister’s Office tried to assuage fears through an official statement. However, it is also observed that Holi is the reason for this bout of seasonal out-migration from the state.
The rumours driving the narrative of migrant exodus are not just due to the stir created from outside. There has been an ostensible undercurrent of animosity against the Hindi-speaking migrant workers predominantly propagated by Seeman, the chief coordinator of the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK, or We Tamils Party) and his virulent Tamil nativist followers. The fear-mongering vis-a-vis the migrant labourers was furthered by a widely popular video posted on January 6, that reeked of humiliation of the migrant workers and their habits. It was posted in the backdrop of Tamil Nadu-bound train passengers’ complaints against migrant workers sitting in passage areas within the train. The video garnered over nine million views, and was both endorsed by the NTK and became a viral meme template on social media.
Further, anti-migrant labour sentiment became the theme of a widely watched television comedy show which aired on February 19, with Seeman as the special guest. While both the video and the television show can assert their creative freedom and their right to express, in effect the sentiment had been disseminated. However, flash surveys reveal that the migrant workers were not subject to any discriminatory treatment and were happy working in the state. Such responses challenge the veracity of the claims made by the BJP leadership in Bihar.
Taking refuge in reality
By now it is sufficiently known that in the last two decades there has been a steadily growing inflow of migrant population into the southern states, mainly from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Economic Survey 2016-17 provided fresh evidence on internal work-related migration in its attempt to estimate the size of and trends in inter-state migration in the country. Analysing the census data of 1991, 2001 and 2011, it discerned that “Internal migration rates have dipped in Maharashtra and surged in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, reflecting the growing pull of southern states in India’s migration dynamics (emphasis added).” Furthermore, mapping work-related migratory routes and patterns based on railway passenger traffic data for the period 2011-2016, it showed that Tamil Nadu experienced “major net in-migration” to the tune of three million.
More recent estimates of the inter-state migrant worker population in Tamil Nadu are hard to come by. However, statements by owners of industrial units in the state’s manufacturing hubs clustered in the northern and western belts provide us valuable anecdotal evidence of the contribution of the Hindi-speaking migrant workers to Tamil Nadu’s economy. From their statements, we can also glean that the hundreds of thousands of these migrant workers are concentrated in low-paying jobs without any social safety nets in the manufacturing and service sectors. Given Tamil Nadu’s high Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education, with important caveats, it is natural for those with higher educational qualifications to progressively seek and secure high-paying employment opportunities. Taken together with the capitalist preference for ‘cheap’ labour as a cost-cutting strategy, the aforementioned trends are only indicative of the challenges that accompany an economy undergoing structural transformation.
Most importantly, assembling the findings of various studies undertaken by researchers, the Economic Survey makes it very clear that work-related internal migration in India is ‘circular’ and ‘semi-permanent’ in nature. It means that migrant workers leaving their villages and towns in search of employment elsewhere do not permanently settle down in destinations where they find work. Instead, they are constantly on the move, in a precariously footloose fashion, eventually returning to their homes. Moreover, a very large proportion of this footloose migration is seasonal, a phenomenon that India’s official data collection agencies are not equipped to capture in its entirety.
It is important to emphasise these dimensions of inter-state migration in India in order to responsibly counter the divisive rhetoric of political formations with a pronounced nativist orientation. Their fear-mongering about migrant workers from the northern states becoming politically dominant in Tamil Nadu over time and driving out the Tamil people after rendering them economically destitute, is completely baseless and unwarranted. The astute Thol. Thirumavalan, party leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and member of parliament, articulated in an interview that cutting across linguistic and regional divides, the migrant workers must be viewed as part of the larger democratic working class, struggling for dignity and justice.
Making sense of the present through history
In order to make sure that such potentially dangerous narratives do not gain any more traction, it is important to mobilise the historical resources at our disposal, in addition to presenting solid empirical evidence and logically sound arguments.
In the 1930s, as the economic repercussions of the Great Depression were beginning to be felt in the Southeast Asian countries exporting agricultural commodities, public anger caused by economic hardship was directed at the ‘outsiders’ and demanded their repatriation. The Tamil migrants formed a substantial segment of this working class population identified and targeted as outsiders in Sri Lanka, Burma and present-day Malaysia and Singapore. In fact, as the economist and author Chinmay Tumbe writes in India Moving, “By 1930, Tamils represented around half of all overseas Indians as these three regions hosted nearly 70 per cent of all overseas Indians.”
Having been at the receiving end of verbal and physical attacks in an overseas territory at a crucial juncture in history, Tamil society is certainly well-placed to understand the plight of poor migrant workers seeking a modicum of economic security and to ensure their safety in the state.
In light of this episode involving rumours about the safety of Hindi-speaking migrant workers in Tamil Nadu, some political leaders have expressed the view that the animosity harboured by the Tamil people towards those coming from the northern states is an outcome of the anti-North sentiment cultivated by the Dravidian movement for many decades now. Statements of a few prominent leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have seemingly given currency to the aforesaid view. It is worth pointing out that C.N. Annadurai, founder of the DMK, had expressed agony at the economic dominance of the commercial life in Madras by the capital-owning mercantile elite from North India. No antipathy was harboured against the working class of that region. On closer look, Annadurai’s 1949 pamphlet Panathottam (The Garden of Money) was a call for the democratisation of capital, the ownership of which was regionally skewed.
This must serve as a compelling reminder for the present-day political class, including those in the DMK, to bring under scrutiny the capital accumulation strategies of the economic elite that come at the expense of the welfare of labour. Notably, due to the structural pressures of the prevalent neoliberal framework, successive governments’ in Tamil Nadu have responded by establishing welfare boards that provide social security for unorganised workers. If anything, the anti-North discourse was one that criticised the centralising tendencies of the Union government and the frequent attempts at Hindi imposition. It was driven by a quest for regional autonomy in policy and administrative matters.
In conclusion, the discussions on internal work-related migration in India can take a more constructive turn if there is sustained focus on redressing regional economic imbalances and on ensuring just work conditions, dignity and social security for migrant workers. While the ‘reverse migration’ during nationwide lockdowns in 2020 did not spur concrete policy actions on these fronts, now is an opportune moment.
Raghunath Nageswaran is a doctoral researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London. The authors acknowledge the inputs provided by Balu, doctoral researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute.