It was a sultry March afternoon in Chennai. I took route number 21 of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) at Ajantha bus stop in Royapettah. It was partially crowded. I was among about 20 people standing in the bus. When the bus reached Royapettah Government Hospital, many seats went empty. I took an aisle seat. A young man came running and occupied the window seat.
“The auto rickshaw driver here is able to speak English. Such an educated state,” he told me.
Born in Bihar, Ranjan completed his schooling and could not go to college. He just visited his friend at the Royapettah Government Hospital. “We work in a construction project in Nungambakkam (a downtown area of Chennai city). He has been unwell and is getting good care in this hospital.”
Also read: Probe will reveal motive behind spread of migrant-attack videos: TN DGP
As someone living in Chennai for the last 25 years, I keep bumping into others like Ranjan. When a Telugu-speaking couple gave up their job as building security/maintenance personnel after their son became a Chartered Accountant, my landlady in downtown Theyagaraya Nagar gave the job, and outhouse accommodation, to a Bihari couple. This happened five years ago.
North Indians aplenty
Every 10th person in a random MTC bus in Chennai is a North Indian. During peak hours of Chennai traffic, every seventh person could be a North Indian.
“Tamil Nadu is a developed state. Name any sector — construction, garment exports, hotels or hospitals — 10 to 30 per cent of the workforce in any company is North Indian,” says Sujatha Modi, President, Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam (Women Workers’ Union).
Meghna is one of the several Assamese women who work in a garment export company at Guindy in Chennai. “We have freedom here. We have rights here. We have better quality of life here,” she tells The Federal as she walks into the garment unit at 9 in the morning. “Fellow Tamil women appreciate my work. I easily make more than ₹20,000 a month. I am a star employee,” she adds with a smile.
She is fond of the pink buses in Chennai. These buses — painted pink on the front and back — allow women to travel for free. Chief Minister MK Stalin introduced these after assuming office in May 2021.
Fake videos around CMs’ birthday
In Tamil Nadu that is abounding with such stories, a few fake news videos forwarded on WhatsApp disrupted the morning of March 2, 2023. “WhatsApp is our world. We believed it. We believed that Biharis were being attacked in Tamil Nadu as portrayed in the videos forwarded on WhatsApp,” says Anil Kumar, who is part of a housekeeping unit in an ITES company in Medavakkam, Chennai.
Also read: Bihar man arrested for spreading false info about migrant workers in Tirupur
It took two days for him to get the clarity that the videos were part of a false propaganda aimed at destabilising the cordial relationship between Bihar and Tamil Nadu. “The timing of the circulation of fake videos is important. The circulation started on March 1 — the birthdays of the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Bihar. The BJP could not tolerate the fact that the Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Tejashwi Yadav commended Stalin’s contribution to social justice on that day,” says M Subbu, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Construction Workers’ Union.
The swift response from both the governments of Bihar and Tamil Nadu saved the day. Stalin said in a media release on March 4: “I have spoken to my brother Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, and assured him that all the workers will be safe here. They are our workers. They are part of Tamil Nadu’s development story.” He said that those who spread disinformation on migrant workers in Tamil Nadu were “anti-nationals”.
A four-member team, headed by Bihar’s Rural Development Department Secretary D Balamurugan, was sent by the Bihar government to study the status of Bihar workers in Tamil Nadu. The team had P Kannan, Inspector General of Police (CID), Alok Kumar, Labour Commissioner, Bihar, and Santosh Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Special Task Force.
The team visited Chennai, Tirupur and Coimbatore from March 4 to 7 and met migrant workers.
A statement from the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) in Bihar on March 10 talks about the findings of the team. “Seven videos were circulated on social media to say that the Bihar workers in Tamil Nadu were assaulted. They were all fake videos,” the statement says.
The team expressed satisfaction about the steps taken by the Tamil Nadu government to allay the fears of the workers. Addressing the media in Patna, Balamurugan said: “The videos created panic. The number of calls to the Tamil Nadu government’s Helpline number in Tirupur has reduced from 740 on March 4 to 12-13 on March 10.”
Bihar police said that they have arrested the main accused who made the fake videos of attacks on migrant workers. Tamil Nadu police have filed cases against Prashant Umrao, a BJP spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh, website OpIndia, and an unidentified editor of the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar for spreading disinformation.
Also read: Fake videos of child kidnapping put North Indians in peril in Karnataka
The Chief Minister’s Office in Bihar may have wanted the issue to die down. However, political analyst and aspirant Prashant Kishor raised a valid question on Friday, March 10, on Twitter. He published a video of Seeman, Chief Coordinator of Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), with Hindi translation. In the short video released by Kishor, Seeman says he will beat up Hindi-speaking people and will pack them up from Tamil Nadu in a week. Seeman refused to comment on the video when contacted by The Federal.
Fact-checkers played a major role in de-escalating the situation around the fake videos circulated mostly by Extreme Right-leaning Twitter handles. AltNews’s co-founder Mohammad Zubair proactively debunked the false propaganda around the migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. He received multiple death threats online for leading the campaign in defence of Tamil Nadu. He also received multiple micro-donations for his website from Tamils for fighting the malicious propaganda against Tamil Nadu.
(Peer Mohamed Azees is the founder of independent media group Ippodhu.com)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)