The weekend ahead of the Holi festival must have been an agonising one for migrant workers from north Indian states in Tamil Nadu.
There have been reports of exodus of anxious workers, a lot of fiery speeches, rumours spread by the Bihar BJP unit among others, and finally a message of assurance from the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MK Stalin.
Action has been swift from the Tamil Nadu chief minister, booking social media handles and some news outlets from the north for instigating the workers and for fake information.
They have equally moved strongly against the state BJP president K Annamalai for allegedly spreading misinformation.
It is the duty of any state government to ensure law and order, and prevent any incidents that would put the migrant workers in danger. In that, the action of the TN government has been quick and strong.
However, what is not helping the DMK government is its past history.
Hate speeches against migrant workers in TN
The track record of not just the past leaders but even the current ones has been tainted by hate speeches against migrant workers and others from Hindi-speaking states in Tamil Nadu.
It has been unrelenting and did not stop with pre-election rally speeches. Legal action against those who spread misinformation cannot cool the nerves of those working in the state, unless action is also taken against those from the DMK and ideologically aligned YouTube channels resorting to such hate speech.
We have to go back in history to trace this phenomenon.
It started long ago, when DMK became a potent political force, gaining mind space and making electoral gains with the anti-Hindi agitation, especially in the 1960s.
“Vadakku valargiradhu therkku theigiradhu” (The north is growing and the south is diminishing) was a popular slogan then to make it look like the Central government wasn’t helping a non-Hindi speaking state like Tamil Nadu.
Cut to the present, the rhetoric has changed to paint the northern states as regressive and burdensome on prosperous states such as Tamil Nadu.
North Indian migrant workers, whose numbers have only been increasing in the past decade, have been derided as “pani puri sellers” to mock at the majority who came for labour and service jobs.
From ministers in the current Tamil Nadu Cabinet such as K Ponmudy to those holding important positions in the party such as TRB Raaja, and supporters, many have resorted to such jibes.
‘Biharis are less-brainy, rapists …’: Senior DMK leaders
A speech attacking Bihar and Biharis was also made by the Minister for Municipal Administration and Water Supply KN Nehru in 2021. He accused “less-brainy” Biharis of taking away all the railway jobs, a practice which he claimed started from the time of Lalu Prasad Yadav.
There have been several such speeches and ads accusing the north Indians of grabbing government jobs — from the Railways, Postal Department, Neyveli Lignite Corporation, and such. The speeches also come with derogatory remarks painting the Biharis as less qualified and not as bright as Tamilians.
Here is the son of former Union Minister and current MP in the Lok Sabha TR Baalu “analysing” Bihar society.
Sounds Racist BUT looking at wat UP Mins & Bihari #Rapists are saying…Problem IS IN THE ENTIRE UP/BIHAR etc Society & not just Individuals
— Dr. T R B Rajaa (@TRBRajaa) April 24, 2013
This was in 2013. TRB Raaja was then a party MLA and is still one. He has now also been rewarded with the post of DMK IT Wing secretary.
From pre-election campaign videos to stray speeches, several highlight the casual bigotry against north Indians.
Jibes against Governor too
Let us see another example — in a recent speech at a book release function, Surya Xavier, among other things, talks about his visit to Bihar and claims that the society there doesn’t allow those who are not Brahmins to even plaster their houses.
“Please go on a flight to Bihar, you can go there in two hours. When the flight enters Patna, please look down and see the houses there. You don’t need to do anything else and can immediately return,” he advises the audience.
Surya Xavier, who regularly resorts to bigotry in his speeches, was given the Tamil Nadu government’s “Sollin Selvar” award in 2021 after MK Stalin became the chief minister.
Xavier has also recently referred to the Tamil Nadu RN Ravi, who is from Bihar, as “Aryan” Ravi and claimed his ancestors came from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and are trying to take over this land.
தமிழகஅரசின் ‘சொல்லின் செல்வர்’ விருது எனக்கு அறிவித்த,
மாண்புமிகு தமிழக முதல்வர் அவர்களை, இன்று எனது மகள் டாக்டர். சுஜி MBBS உடன், நேரில் சந்தித்து நன்றி தெரிவித்தேன்.
தந்தைபெரியார் சிலை கொடுத்து வாழ்த்துப்பெற்றேன்.
— surya xavier (@suryaxavier1) January 28, 2022
It is not just winners of awards given by the DMK government attacking the Governor. A senior leader of the DMK, now its organising secretary, and MP RS Bharathi used the “pani puri wala from Bihar” jibe against Governor Ravi recently.
“Could the Governor have gone home had [the CM] given a signal? Had Sekar Babu known, things would have been different. We have many Sekar Babus in the Assembly. You don’t need a degree from Yale, they would have thrown whatever they could find [at the Governor],” RS Bharathi added in the speech, implying that the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department minister PK Sekar Babu and some other MLAs were musclemen who could be deployed for violence.
Incidentally, Sekar Babu, after his victory in the 2021 election in a constituency with a substantial presence of people who had originally come from North India, told them in a meeting, “These days, due to EVMs, we know the number of people in a locality who have voted for us. … You didn’t vote for me even in 2021.”
Hate against migrant workers in TN through YouTube channels with lakhs of subscribers
YouTube channels are a very popular medium in Tamil Nadu, and there are channels galore that regularly put out hate speech.
For instance, even the aforementioned speech by DMK MP RS Bharathi was shared by a YouTube channel with more than a million subscribers, praising him. And the speech by Sekar Babu was shared by another YouTube channel with more than two million subscribers with the caption poking fun at the people residing there.
Here is the popular conspiracy theorist Parisaalan given space last month by a YouTube channel with more than two million followers.
The title quotes Parisaalan as saying that there is a planned conspiracy to destroy the Tamil race by bringing north Indian migrant workers to the state.
Many such videos were published around a month ago on popular YouTube channels spreading hatred against North Indian migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. We have not even gone into similar speeches by NTK leader Seeman.
Even after the recent alarm, a YouTube channel I Tamil News, which has 6,58,000 subscribers, posted this video where the speaker claims North Indian migrant workers would destroy India. He adds that in the future, nothing can be done when four North Indians rape a Tamil girl walking in the street.
‘Pan parag mouths’
From the earlier anti-Hindi stance to the current anti-north Indian stance, there have been certain differences.
One is the point made earlier: Instead of saying the North is growing at the expense of the South, now the claim is that North Indians are low-IQ people grabbing jobs in Tamil Nadu.
Earlier the Marwari businessmen used to be figures of envy and derision as “settu”, now the people from Bihar and UP are “pani puri walas” and “pan parag mouths”.
The ghost of BJP
For the DMK and its supporters, things go beyond language or snatching away jobs.
They see the ghost of the BJP in Hindi, Hindi speakers. That can be judged from the opposition to the “one nation one ration scheme” where the main objection was to giving the same amount of ration to migrant workers as Tamil Nadu gives to its people.
Tamil Nadu is a state that is heavily utilising the services of migrants. How much really is it going to be a burden to extend the welfare that it provides its own people to migrant workers?
From the DMK deputy general secretary and MP Kanimozhi to others, many from the party have spoken against the ration card scheme, specifically with reference to migrants. One wonders if they would want Tamil migrants working in other states also to be deprived of social welfare.
Posters have come up against denying business space to North Indians in the state and there was also a talk by the Tamil Nadu Commercial Taxes Minister P Moorthy painting North Indian traders as tax evaders. He wanted Tamil Nadu to be free of traders from North India.
Even more atrocious was a letter by MLA T Velmurugan of Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, who has been elected to the Assembly on a DMK ticket. He wrote to the government insisting that an inner line permit system be introduced to curb the entry of North Indians, including migrant workers, into Tamil Nadu.
They see the North Indians as BJP voters, and if their numbers increase in Tamil Nadu, believe that the BJP would get more votes.
If the top leadership of the DMK continues to toe the line of anti-Hindi, anti-North as a proxy to being anti-BJP, there is no way it is going to prevent the fringe from spreading hatred against North Indian migrant workers in Tamil Nadu, or stop their vituperative online comments and videos.
In February 2023, reports said that a migrant worker from Bengal was beaten to death on the outskirts of Chennai on the suspicion that he was a thief since he could not speak Tamil. Less than three weeks ago, reports said that investigation was underway after a viral video from a train in Tamil Nadu in which three migrant workers were abused and slapped for taking away local jobs.
For over five decades, the Dravidian parties have ruled the state. It is surprising that the DMK and its supporters still use the anti-Hindi, anti-North trope as a political weapon.
From questioning an outsider’s attempt to enter politics (actor Rajinikanth’s intention to float a political party) to opposing Biharis, the state continues the trend set by the founder leaders who ensured that the Dravidian movement thrived through bigotry.
(MC Vaijayanthi spent a major part of her career as a journalist covering stock markets, banking, finance, oil and gas sector for various national and international media organisations. She was a Panos South Asia fellow in 2012–13 as part of their India Telecom Project. These are the personal views of the author)