Migrants & Unemployment: TN Row May Be Misleading but DMK Must Watch Its Steps

Workers from Bihar are left anxious about their future in the Southern state – a haven for job seekers.

4 min read

By now, it is abundantly clear that threats to migrant workers from Northern India working in Tamil Nadu are a well-organised hoax meant for petty politics of the dirty kind. We had anxious workers from Bihar worried about their future in the industrialised Southern state which has been a haven for job seekers in a country otherwise concerned over growing or persisting unemployment.

While the first round of this political boxing match has certainly gone to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and his DMK-led coalition government, the game is far from over. It is time for the "Dravida model" leader to go beyond his current call because, as they say, there is no smoke without fire.


But first things first. The Bihar government which sent a four-member committee to probe allegations that the state's migrant workers had been threatened in their new southern home, submitted a report following which the state police's Economic Offence Unit has lodged a case against Manish Kashyap, a prominent YouTuber for sharing a fake video on alleged attacks on Bihari migrants.

We are not surprised. A series of investigative reports by The Quint under its WebQoof series to call out fake news, had already established that not one or two but several videos unrelated to the state or its migrant workers have been spread on social media with what looked clearly like a scripted act meant to help politicians working against the DMK.

Migrant Row Conspiracy Fuelled the Fake News Flame

The BJP's Bihar unit had gone to town asking for investigations and state-run Doordarshan joined the chorus, creating an impression across India that North Indian workers were facing deep trouble in Tamil Nadu. Stalin and his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar moved quickly to douse the fire.

Bihar workers in the state were interviewed on TV channels and reassured by government officials that they were safe. Announcements were made at various levels of the Tamil Nadu administration and industry associations to allay fears that migrants were under attack.

The BJP clearly played with fire in this and the reasons are not far to seek. With the Janata Dal (United) having parted ways with the party in Bihar to tie up with BJP's arch-foe RJD amid talks of national opposition unity, this was something that suited BJP's narrative that used innuendo in place of information.

Does the North Indian Community Face Discrimination in South India?

Tamil Nadu's unemployment rate last December was 4.1% as against BIhar's 19.1% and the nationwide 8.3% though data can be misleading because perceptions of what constitutes unemployment can vary.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy's (CMIE) data for Haryana shows unemployment at 37.4% in the same breath but anyone visiting Tamil Nadu's bustling centres including Chennai and the textile town of Tirupur can see Biharis, Odias, and Nepalis doing everything from washing dishes to weaving clothes.

Tamil Nadu and Bihar are now on an economic honeymoon for sure. Tamil Nadu's workers are increasingly busy in the United States, South-East Asia, Gulf countries, and various parts of the planet as education levels shoot up and skills turn abundant under the "Dravida model' that has emphasised on caste-based reservations as a tool for social and educational empowerment aided by mushrooming engineering colleges.

The catch, however, is that migrant workers in Tamil Nadu are being subject to racist slurs, jokes, and veiled threats on the fringe that are undeniable. This is what the BJP and anti-Dravida political groups have been thriving on. DMK now leads what could be called a "Dravida parivar" but not all the groups in the states are in favour of its egalitarian order. No wonder, BJP's spokespersons are on Tamil news channels, asking Stalin to crack down on some of its allies.

Local leaders of the Dalit-centric VCK party have been seen putting up posters asking north Indian workers to leave while the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) which is a radical Tamil party opposed to Stalin's DMK, has been making clear statements that reek of linguistic chauvinism, talking about Tamils as a superior race.


How DMK Needs To Do Better

Prashant Kishor who was DMK's strategist in its victorious 2021 state assembly polls, last week shared a video clip of NTK leader Seeman in which the actor-turned-rabble-rouser can be seen talking about beating up northern workers to make them leave. Kishor rightly asked why no action had been taken against Seeman.

In other news, Seeman's party flaunts Sri Lanka's slain separatist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as an icon and hero. Seeman even talks of using random accusations of drug peddling and sexual harassment against migrant workers. He is often seen on Tamil channels flaunting a dubious political swagger clearly aimed at poisoning communal harmony in the state.

Kishor, as he launches his own political bid in Bihar, carries credibility in both the states and is a voice that must be listened to. NTK's style is a lot similar to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra circa 1970 when it targeted southern Indian workers and students. Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena used similar tactics later.

What is clear is that even high industrial growth leads to a dissatisfied loser fringe that falls back on cheap tricks and chauvinism to win hearts and votes. Sometimes they are used by large national parties to contain their prime rivals.

This is where it pays to remember that fundamental rights of India's Constitution include rights to movement and residence as also the right to practice any profession or occupation. Identity politics based on region or religion cannot go against the Constitution.

The challenge now lies for DMK to not just isolate and defeat fringe politicians but also see to it that its own coalition ranks are not fattened by chauvinists and opportunists. Stalin has won Round One in the battle, but his politics badly needs some calibration in the days ahead.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity.)

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