By B. Sivaraman
If the ability of the state to protect its citizens—be they religious minorities or migrant workers from other provinces—from mass atrocities is the test for democracy, then Gujarat has failed the test again and again. In 2002, it was a failed communal state. In 2018, it has again proved itself to be a failed chauvinist and racist state.
On 28 September 2018, a 14-month old girl child gets raped. A heinous act, no doubt. But what followed was no less heinous. The police arrest the alleged culprit, a migrant worker from Bihar. For about a week there was stunned silence. But from 6 October onward, as if by design, organised gangs start attacking migrant workers in a highly disproportionate “reaction” reminiscent of the gory post-Godhra response, specifically targeting those from Bihar and eastern UP and calculatedly sparing others from Orissa and South India. By 15 October 2018, more than one lakh migrant workers had been forced out of Gujarat due to physical attacks. Their dwellings were razed; their women were molested. And their meagre properties were looted. The Gujarat government failed to act, giving the impression all over again that there was a tacit wink of approval and even free licence from the authorities for the chauvinistic gangsters and their xenophobic attacks. Gujarat once again proves that mass atrocities occur mostly in an enabling political environment with tacit sanction by the rulers and the higher administration.
Chauvinism might bring in narrow political gains but it comes with a heavy price. In a highly industrialised state already suffering acute labour shortage and highly dependent on migrant labour; it is bound to hurt the economy sooner than later. A fortnight after the migrant workers started fleeing in fear, construction work and work in many unorganised units came to a grinding halt for want of workers. Even as the Gujarat economy is still struggling to recover fully from the repeated blows of demonetization and the GST, the industrialists associations started squealing.
Gujarat processes 8 out of 10 diamonds sold all over the world and the state accounts for 80% of the diamonds processed and 95% of the diamonds exported from India. The 10,000 diamond units scattered in and around Surat also started feeling the pinch of labour shortage. Sensing an opportunity, Telangana’s Chandrasekhara Rao’s officials started wooing diamond industrialists from Gujarat to the Jubilee Hills Gems and Jewellery Park in Hyderabad. Mamata’s bureaucrats also did not lag behind. They were offering attractive concessions in similar parks in Manikanchan in Kolkata and Ankurhati in Howrah. The threat of de-industrialisation and capital flight became real.
Gujarat produces 30% of the woven fabrics in the country and 90 lakh workers are engaged in the textile units of Gujarat, mostly in powerlooms and handlooms. A majority of them are migrants. About 45 to 50 lakh among them are women. The textile industry was down in the dumps and barely started recovering in the second quarter this year when the labour force started their vanishing act. After all, they had to remain alive before they could earn their livelihood!
It was the renowned labour researcher Jan Bremen, who prophetically described a good chunk of labour in Gujarat as ‘footloose labour’. When the push came to a shove, they just drifted away in droves. TV screens flashing jampacked trains to UP and Bihar and migrant mobs struggling to get into omni buses leaving Gujarat only added to the panic scenario. It is not without reason that Jan Bremen also called them ‘circulatory labour’. They go away as swiftly as they come. Besides the threat to their lives in Gujarat, they had added reasons to leave. The kharif katni (harvest) season and above all the Chhat puja back home are approaching.
So, in an ironical twist, after a sordid display of his deliberately chosen weakness in stemming the violence against Hindi-speaking migrant workers, the nondescript chief minister of Gujarat rushed to Lucknow to invite Yogi Adityanath to inaugurate the statue of the ‘strongman’ of Gujarat, Sardar Patel. He sent one of his ministers to Patna also to invite Nitish Kumar for a contrived synthetic show of bonhomie with the Hindi belt. His police officers were paraded before TV cameras gorging gol goppas from Hindi-speaking hawkers to convey the false message that everything is normal in the state. But the migrant workers knew better—there is something rotten in the state of Gujarat under the BJP rule!
The Gujarat High Court also admitted a petition which alleged that 2 lakh migrant workers had been forced to flee Gujarat due to threats and physical attacks. What would happen to the state’s exchequer if, as in the case of rape victims and victims of communal riots, the court orders Rs.1 lakh compensation to each of the migrant worker forcibly displaced? The civil society is already clamouring for extension of the SC-ST Atrocities Act to cover the highly vulnerable migrant workers also.
The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the 1949 Geneva Convention, and the 1977 additional protocols under it have very strong provisions against mass atrocities. Gujarat has been guilty of violating these time and again. The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines mass atrocities as including deportation or forcible transfer of population as well as “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender grounds”.
If the violence against migrant workers continues, Gujarat, with its state-sanctioned illegality and criminality, would parade itself before the comity of nations as violators of all these international conventions. If mass violations of human rights in Gujarat snowball into a major public issue in Europe and USA, it is bound to take a toll on the investment flows. Also, if labour is footloose, capital is no less mercurial. It might dawn upon the parochial powers that be in Gujarat only after a time lag. But by then it might be too late. Tyrants’ Gujarat could no longer claim to be Vibrant Gujarat! (IPA Service)