Why the Bhaiyyas are leaving Gujarat

In the early 1980s, my father gave up his job and set up a textiles business in Surat and Ankleshwar. The company manufactured polyester yarn and fabric, and I joined it in 1989. It collapsed a few years later (I was only partly to blame) just after Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation policies opened up the market to competition from South Korea and China. Our factories, which were really quite small, employed around 150 people in both locations. 

They were vertically structured, with the owners running the show, but because they were apart and distant from home, daily operations had to be managed by the people working there.

There were three managers I worked with. One was Gangaram, a technician who had originally been with Lohia Machines Ltd (which supplied two of our crimping units) and then there was Pandeyji, who was a sort of general manager. Both these men left us when it became apparent that the business was in trouble. And then there was Lakshman, who after a hit movie starring Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff, renamed himself Lakhan.

Of course, it is the case that Gujarati industry operates on a de-unionised, owner-centric consensus that demotes the specific contribution of labour. But even within such a space, there was no rancour that the Gujarati workers — and we had plenty of those too — had against the ‘Bhaiyyas’, as the north Indians were called. Any sort of manufacturing place you can think of in Gujarat, from the power looms of Pandesara and Udhna, to the texturising units of Sayan and Panoli to the ceramics factories and oil mills of Saurashtra, will have, and have always had, a very large number of non-Gujarati workers.

Even then, 30 years ago, it was clear to me that there were a lot of non-Gujarati migrants in the state. However, I was astonished to read this week that the number was closer to 10 million (of a total population of just over 60 million).

So how are we to understand the recent violence against them that has led tens of thousands of them, and possibly more, to flee Gujarat in a panic? If there is no resentment that was simmering underneath, how can mass violence against them suddenly explode? After the rape of a child a few days ago in Sabarkantha, in the northeast part of Gujarat, mobs began attacking north Indians. The state government has registered over 50 first information reports and arrested more than 400 people, showing that the violence and resentment was widespread. To what can we attribute it? 

Illustration by Binay Sinha

There are two theories here. The first is one put forward by the Congress president. Rahul Gandhi says that it is the recent joblessness caused by things such as demonetisation that has produced this resentment against ‘outsiders’, which exploded with the rape. 

It is possible that this is partially the case. However, in my opinion, it is unlikely. The north Indian acts in Gujarat in the same role as the eastern European in the United Kingdom and the Mexican in the southern United States. Meaning that he does the sort of labour-oriented work that the Gujarati is not generally inclined to do. There is no other reasonable explanation for why a state of 60 million can accommodate 10 million migrant workers.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believes that all of it is down to the mischief by the Congress (one of the firebrands who is leading the attack on the north Indians, at least through rhetoric, is a young Congress leader). This is also probably partly but not wholly true. The scale of the panic, the exodus and the attacks means that this action is popular — i.e. approved by the many — and spontaneous. This is where we must focus.

The reality of Gujarat in the last 30 years is that there has been a systemic effort by the government and the political establishment to focus on collective identity. 

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar understood this aspect and said: “Don’t punish everyone for the crime of one”. He was quoted as saying that “the person, who committed the crime, should be punished, there should be strong actions taken against him. But, people should not have such notions about others... I would like to appeal to all the people to not have similar impressions for others on such matters.” 

And yet this is precisely what has been happening in Gujarat for decades. The BJP has done this through commission and the Congress through omission (I am being kind to the Congress and it is possible, and even likely, that in many instances it has been just as mischievous on this as the BJP has been at the local level). 

This constant emphasis on “us versus them” has resulted in the diminution of individual identity and also, sadly, the acceptance of collective punishment. The one part of India where there is zero regret, repentance or shame for the ghastly violence of 2002 in Gujarat is Gujarat. Even for me, having a discussion about it and its ramifications with family is difficult. The usual response is to sullenly say: “e loko-e sharu karyun (“they started it” — a reference to the incident at Godhra station — implying that “they” deserved it). 

The conditions that created that violence were underpinned by the same forces: Demonisation of a community that one has lived with for decades or centuries and then acceptance of collective punishment against neighbours. This is an important aspect because almost all violence happens in such cases at the level of the neighbourhood, and between people known to each other.

For the rest of us, it may not be easy to understand why or how a Gujarati can feel violently angry with someone he knows over another act of violence between two individuals he does not know. But it has become normalised with them. 

The Gujarati Muslim had no other place to go to when attacked. The north Indians are queueing up to return ‘home’, which is, for many of them, a place they know much less about than they know Gujarat. Most of them have returned to safety and security, and I hope that Gangaram, Pandeyji and Lakhan are among them.