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Gujarat migrant crisis: From eating panipuris to visiting railway stations, state police go all out to assuage fears of scared workers

Editor's Note: The rape of a 14-month-old girl by a migrant labourer from Bihar in Idar town of Sabarkantha district on 28 September gave way to the persecution of migrant labourers in seven of the 33 districts of Gujarat. This incident ignited anger against migrant workers whom the locals believe are the real reason for unemployment in the state. This multi-part series will examine issues concerning migrant workers and the animosity they face from locals.

Gandhinagar/Mehsana: From intensifying security patrols, holding intensive community meetings, rushing to railway and bus stations to quell panic and keeping a close watch on the vast social media space to even eating panipuris from the carts of north Indian migrants, the Gujarat Police has resorted to many conventional as well as nonconventional methods to normalise the situation in the western state that witnessed an unprecedented outburst of violence against 'outsiders' after the recent incident of rape of a 14-month-old girl allegedly by a labourer from Bihar.

Following the violence that spread to seven districts in north and central Gujarat, including Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Vadodara, Mehsana and Sabarkantha, where the toddler was allegedly raped on 28 September, an exodus of sorts of migrant workers, mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh started.

Inspector General of Police, Gandhinagar Range, Mayanksinh Chavda assuring migrants of their safety. Image courtesy Rajnish Mishra

Inspector General of Police, Gandhinagar Range, Mayanksinh Chavda assuring migrants of their safety. Image courtesy Rajnish Mishra

Rumours and hate messages, circulated both on social media as well as by word of mouth, were making things worse. Queues of migrant workers at railway and bus stations trying to exit the state hampered the work at various industrial units and construction projects.

Police faced multiple challenges, all at once, to bring the situation back to normal. Many incidents of attacks on migrants were reported from rural and semi-urban areas. They were threatened to leave immediately the places where many of them had lived peacefully for years without ever realising that someday they might be treated as outsiders.

As these incidents of persecution caused a loss of faith among the migrant community, the police, apart from maintaining law and order, also had to play a role in restoring migrants’ confidence about their safety in the state.

Inspector General of Police, Gandhinagar Range (which comprises four of the affected districts -- Mehsana, Sabarkantha, Gandhinagar and Aravalli), Mayanksinh Chavda, says his force did all it could to control the situation quickly.

Chavda says the police started flag marches in affected areas soon after incidents of violence were reported. “We increased patrols, went to villages and industrial areas to conduct meetings with communities and others concerned. We held meetings with leaders of Thakor community, to which the raped toddler belongs to,” the IG says, adding that community meetings with the management of industrial units employing migrant workers in large numbers are still going on.

Chavda says that factories employing a large number of migrants were soft targets but it was impractical to deploy police at all the units in the affected areas. So, a strategy to leverage the same social media that was being used for rumour mongering and escalating the violence was developed. WhatsApp groups that include representatives from each such industrial units were created to monitor threats and react in real time, the IG reveals.

Police focused on residential parts of rural areas inhabited by migrant workers in large numbers as most of the attacks were reported from these areas. Emergency helpline numbers were issued, apart from deploying force and approaching the locals to diffuse the tension. The migrants were asked to inform the police immediately if they perceived a threat of any kind or received any provoking or threatening message on social media.

While the PCRs across the state were instructed to respond quickly to calls reporting threats and violence, senior police and administration officials were instructed to involve in outreach activities by instilling confidence of safety among the migrant workers leaving the state from various transit points.

A senior police official, seeking anonymity, says that senior bureaucrats hailing from states like Bihar, such as Chief Secretary JN Singh and DGP Shivanand Jha, worked overtime to bring the situation back to normal.

As violence and threats declined, police officials also took to other unconventional methods, such as visiting the businesses of migrant vendors selling panipuris on streets, as an outreach initiative. Aravalli superintendent of police Mayur Patil and Collector N Nagraj were seen relishing panipuris from vendors who had disappeared from the streets for a couple of weeks in the aftermath of the violence.

The Gujarat Police has so far arrested over 600 accused in connection with over 60 incidents of violence, half of which (almost 300 arrests in 32 cases) were reported from four districts of Gandhinagar police range. Of all the arrests made, 45 are in connection with the misuse of social media.

JS Gedam, in-charge ACP of cyber cell of the Ahmedabad crime branch, which was the nodal agency to monitor and act against rumour mongers on social media, says they worked in coordination with cyber cells and police units of the affected districts. Explaining how the cyber cell managed to track the culprits in such a vast space of social media, Gedam says, “We use the possible keywords which could be used to spread hate or provocation to find out such messages and then track the culprits. Whenever needed, we also took help from Facebook to track the culprits. We have nabbed 45 of them so far and are yet to nab (another) 69.”

These outreach activities and swift action from the police seems to have paid off with migrant workers returning to industrial units in affected areas and their outflow due to fear of persecution from Gujarat has also almost ceased.

The author is an Ahmedabad-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.


Updated Date: Oct 16, 2018 19:30 PM