The disturbing images of mass exodus of migrant workers from the highlight the growing campaign of hatred against the “outsiders” who are perceived as enemies. While no Indian law imposes any restrictions on citizens working in any state, the anti-migrant sentiment, fueled by local vested interests with political motives, hits at the very root of the idea of India and can derail the country’s growth story. For the past several days, thousands of migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are fleeing Gujarat fearing violent backlash against non-Gujaratis after a 14-month-old toddler was raped on September 28. The arrested accused is a migrant labourer from Bihar. Following the incident, several migrants in six north Gujarat districts were beaten up and hate messages have been spreading like wildfire on social media. The plight of jobless migrants, packed into overcrowded buses and trains to get back to their native places, makes a mockery of “Gujarat Model” of development. It is these migrant labourers from across the country, particularly from Northern states, who have contributed to its economic growth. The more worrying trend is that the anti-immigrant sentiment is finding traction in a progressive state like Gujarat. Despite being in their own country, these migrants have become unwanted elements in a state which boasts of nurturing a business-friendly environment.
The BJP government in Gujarat must take decisive measures to restore confidence and contain the anti-migrant sentiment before it spins out of control. Otherwise, there is a danger that it could feed off a larger “anti-Outsider” narrative being championed nationally. During the Patidar agitation in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections, Gujarat had witnessed a largely manufactured outburst of anger against the so-called “outsiders” on the question of jobs. As a result of a sustained political campaign, the state government had last month announced that 80% of factory jobs will be reserved for local Gujaratis. This is despite the fact that a large migrant workforce has been a major contributor to Gujarat’s rise as a manufacturing hub. These unorganised migrant workers typically occupy the bottom rung of the labour pyramid, doing menial jobs for very low wages. Unfortunately, the economic gains being accrued by labour migration are often ignored by politicians who make careers out of painting the vulnerable migrant worker as the prime villain. There have been several instances of hate crimes targeting migrants from a particular region. Migrants belonging to UP, Bihar and the North East region have been forced to return home for fear of their lives in various regions of the country in the past. In August 2012, thousands of people from the North East fled Bangalore following rumours of a widespread attack on the community.