Victims of failure to understand
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They come in lakhs from the northern and northeastern states and find jobs in Kerala, whose services sector and farming and construction industries thrive on the physical labour they put in. Yet many of these migrant workers have also faced abuse, assault and arrest — victims of various suspicions and mob justice, unable to defend themselves in the local language.
Amir of Bihar was assaulted by a mob who thought he was a wanted thief. Now in judicial custody, he has no one to plead for his bail.
Dipen Konra of West Bengal lost his way while travelling to Kerala and fell into a series of misadventures that saw him taken into custody twice, and injured permanently by the time he was reunited with his family.
Pramod Kumar Lima was beaten unconscious by a guard after he had sneaked into a school to escape the police. And Bullet Oran of West Bengal, injured in an accident, hanged himself after being denied help by people who thought he was a thief.
Part of people's suspicions has been fed by actual incidents of migrant workers being found involved in theft and murder. Last month, three workers were killed in Kannur in separate clashes among themselves. Police said these clashes usually begin with quarrels after drinking sessions. Last March, a fight between two workers from Assam saw one beating the other to death. Also last year, a worker from Bengal was arrested on charges of attacking a houseowner during a theft attempt in Guruvayoor.
Such is the depth of suspicions that last year, hundreds of workers were chased out of a park in Thiruvananthapuram where they were holidaying. Elsewhere in Kerala, entire workers' camps have been vandalised for thefts and petty crimes.
The stories of four migrant workers who have suffered because of people's suspicions:
Amir, 22, had come to Varkala in Thiruvanathapuram. Every morning, he would join other migrants at a place where contractors come "shopping" for workers, one of several such areas in markets across Kerala.
Last December 23, Amir went near a Dalit colony at Ayiroor in Thiruvananthapuram Rural, having been alerted about a possible job. He found none but kept looking and got stranded in the evening. "Early the next day, local people caught him," says inspector V S Prasanth.
They tied him to an electric post, their suspicions fuelled by recent thefts and rumours about the "Black Man" who had supposedly committed them. Besides, people of the Dalit colony were being suspected of the thefts. To create the impression that they had nabbed the Black Man, the inspector said, they covered Amir's head in a black shawl and made him clutch a rod to look like a housebreaker. The crowd swelled; some slapped his face, some even tried to paint him black. They grilled him with questions he could not answer, any more than he could understand what they were accusing him of.
The police arrived but the mob was reluctant to hand him over, insisting that he be placed under arrest. With an assurance that he wouldn't be released, police finally took him away 10 hours after he had been caught.
He was arrested under CrPC section 41B, produced in court and remanded in judicial custody for two weeks in the absence of someone to plead for bail on his behalf. Last week, the magistrate extended his remand by another two weeks as there was no one to stand surety. He remains in Attingal sub-jail, no one having come looking for him yet. Police say they have not been able to trace his relatives from the Bihar address he has given them.
The inspector agreed Amir was not involved in any criminal activity, and his fingerprints don't match anyone's in police records. They have not sought his custody. "Amir is innocent. He was arrested under mob pressure. It is up to the court to take a decision on his bail. We are even delaying the chargesheet to help him go on bail," said a police source.
Dipen Konra, Bengal
Caught, freed, caught...
Konra, 30, a tribal from Burdwan, boarded a train from Shalimar on June 5, 2011, hoping to find a job in Kollam. Two days later, he stepped down for water at Aluva station, a few hours from Kollam, but the train pulled away before he could board it. In the crowded compartment, his brother-in-law Shibu travelled on, unaware.
In unfamiliar surroundings, Konra started walking aimlessly along NH 47, asking futile questions in Bengali. In the evening, he reached Desham, where people questioned him in Malayalam, got no answer and alerted the police, who took him to Nedumbassery police station.
The next morning, he ran away, jumped a wall in front of the police station and found himself on the compound of Kochi International Airport. Under the impression that a Maoist had sneaked in, police and CISF chased him along the runway and caught him after he had jumped back out of the compound, fracturing a leg and an arm. He was charged under sections of the IPC and the Airport Act.
He was taken to Kottayam Medical College, having also injured his genitals and bladder. "He was plastered from neck to foot, his legs wrapped together with a single bandage. He could not pass urine," said Martin Puthussery, a Jesuit priest from Kolkata who is studying migrant workers in Kerala. "He told me in Bengali that he had done nothing wrong other than try to escape. He had no idea he was jumping into the airport compound."
Days later, Konra was discharged from hospital, still unwell, and shifted to the central prison in Thrissur. Social activist Joy Kaitharam moved a petition in the State Human Rights Commission and Konra was shifted to Thrissur Medical College. For the next few months, he was shuttled between jail and hospital, with social activists every time taking up the issue with the government and the rights commission.
His brother-in law Shibu, 19, had caught up with him by then
On February 7, 2012, a magistrate's court at Aluva awarded Konra six months for the attempt to escape, a term he had already served by then. For the airport trespass, the court on March 7 gave him a six-month term, again already completed. Yet when social activists reached the jail expecting Konra's release, the authorities told them about another case, this one with the revenue division magistrate's court in Fort Kochi. On March 27, the magistrate's court there acquitted him.
The prison authorities released Konra the next day without informing the social activists or his family. Konra disappeared once again. A missing person complaint was registered with Thrissur police. On March 30, Konra begged for money to make a call to his brother-in law, and an auto driver in Thrissur gave him Rs 20. On getting the call from Konra, Shibu and Father Martin Puthussery informed the police, who found Konra and took him into custody once again.
On March 31, a court in Thrissur took up the missing person case. The ordeal ended on April 8, when Konra boarded a train home to join his wife Surajmoni and daughter Ringu.
"Konra has left Kerala a disabled person, one who can longer work. One of his legs is shorter than the other due to the poor care he got. He did not get any compensation," Puthussery said.
Pramod Lima, Orissa
Lima, 24, of Raigad, Orissa, had been working for two weeks in a fish processing unit in Kochi. On October 22, 2012, he got a phone call that an uncle of his had died. Moving at night towards Aluva station, a major boarding point for migrant workers in central Kerala, he was stopped on the highway and questioned by local people. They sought his ID card, which he did not have. When a police patrol team arrived, the scared Lima fled. He sneaked into a school compound, where he was tortured by a security man. The next day, police took the unconscious Lima to Kochi General Hospital to be treated for serious injuries. The only breadwinner of his family, Lima was taken home by them long before he was cured.
Bullet Oran, Bengal
Suicide after denial
Oran, of Jalpaiguri district, was travelling to Alappuzha for a job when he fell off the train on September 27, 2011. Bleeding and dragging an injured leg, he crawled alongside the railway track that night and knocked on house after house, pleading for water and bandages. People thought he was a thief and shut the door on Oran, who could not explain himself because of the language barrier. Oran eventually hanged himself in public, in front of a temple.
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