Was Fake News About ‘Attacks’ on Migrant Labourers an Attempt to Malign Tamil Nadu?

DMK leaders and other political observers say the narrative was generated to counter the state's "inclusive model" of growth, with an eye on the 2024 general elections.

On March 1, several non-BJP leaders – including Congress president Mallikarjuna Kharge, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejaswi Yadav – descended in Tamil Nadu. The occasion was Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin’s 70th birth anniversary and the meeting turned out to be a massive show of opposition unity. The leaders were keen on setting up a strong national-level front to counter the BJP and promised to fight against “divisive forces”.

The next day, when journalists asked Stalin if he was eying national politics, he said he was “already there”. Hours later, rumours and fake narratives about “attacks on migrant labourers” from North India in Tamil Nadu began doing rounds on social media.

While several fact-checkers have debunked the claims about these videos, observers see a political motive behind the narrative.

“For one, the Tamil Nadu chief minister sharing the dais with national leaders is surely a reason for these fake news factories to do this. That there is a political alignment against the BJP is a cause of concern for them,” says DMK spokesperson Manu Shanmugasundaram.

He also claims that Tamil Nadu’s “model of inclusive growth” is another reason. “This has obviously hurt them. Tamil Nadu is ranked as the most urbanised state and has one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the country. It provides livelihoods for millions. There are reasons for those who promote the Gujarat model to feel envious of Tamil Nadu.”

While the Tamil Nadu police swung into action and filed cases against those who spread the fake news, the government machinery reached out to the migrant labourers by way of introducing a helpline for the specific purpose. Stalin also spoke to his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar and assured him of the safety of migrant labourers in Tamil Nadu.

On March 7, the chief minister visited a glove manufacturing unit at Kavalkinaru in Tirunelveli district and assured the migrant labourers working there of safety and security. In a tweet, Stalin said that there was a feeling of fraternity and safety among them and that the state government remains committed to protecting labourers.

Attempts to ‘malign’ Tamil Nadu?

Observers see the attempt to create a fake narrative as part of larger efforts to “malign” Tamil Nadu at the national level for electoral purposes.

“This has been happening for quite some time. The BJP and the right-wing groups have been doing it,” says Iyan Karthikeyan, a Chennai-based journalist and fact checker. “When a student died by suicide in Thanjavur in March 2022, right-wing groups said she killed herself because the school forced her to convert. They also released a clipped video to establish this. But when the full video was released, the reason was entirely different. She even responded in the negative to questions on whether she was forced not to wear a bindi or not to celebrate Pongal. It became a national debate.”

Similarly, when DMK leader T.R. Balu spoke about removing religious structures to make way for highways, the clip was “maliciously edited” to say only temples were being removed, the journalist said. But Balu had in fact said that even mosques and churches were removed, and in this particular incident, the temple was rebuilt in a bigger way. “But it was twisted out of context. More recently, the national media made a debate out of the murder of an army person. He was killed due to a family dispute. But the debate hinged on him being an army man. Clearly, there is an attempt to show Tamil Nadu as an anti-Hindu, anti-national state. But this did not hit home until the issue of migrant labourers came up. It could lead to a law-and-order issue and a serious crisis,” Karthikeyan said.

He says the narrative is being rolled out with the aim to be used in the 2024 general elections. “While it might still have no impact in the state, the BJP could well use it at the national level – show Tamil Nadu as an example, and say, ‘Look, if we don’t rule you, you would end up being discriminated this way.’”

Also Read: On the Lookout For an Emotive Issue Ahead of LS Polls, BJP Suffers a Setback in Bihar

Tamil Nadu BJP in a fix

But the narrative put forth by the BJP’s Bihar unit has put its Tamil Nadu counterpart in a fix. In an interview with SouthFirst, Tamil Nadu BJP vice president Narayanan Tirupathy said he condemned the fake news, even if it was spread by the BJP in Bihar. He, however, added that several leaders in Tamil Nadu – including from the ruling party – have “degraded” migrant labourers, which lead to panic among them when the fake news of attacks was spread.

The state police have also filed a case against BJP Tamil Nadu president K. Annamalai, allegedly for “airing similar views” to those who spread the fake news.

DMK leaders say that the Tamil Nadu BJP was drawing false conflating the party’s struggle against the imposition of Hindi in the state and the presence of Hindi-speaking migrant labourers. “The DMK has always been vocal about opposition to the imposition of Hindi. We have also expressed concerns about Hindi-speaking people taking up a chunk of jobs in various Union government departments. But to misconstrue these ideological issues as hatred for migrant labourers is a vicious campaign,” says Salma, a writer and DMK spokesperson. “The DMK government will continue to protect the migrant labourers, as it has always done.”