When abuse is everyday: Why Bihari migrants have learned to live with rumours and half-truths

They aren’t good at victimhood – because they can’t afford to be.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Earlier this month, manufacturers in Tamil Nadu were worried about misinformation spreading on “attacks” on migrant workers in the state and the impact this would have, especially on workers from Bihar. The major concern was whether these workers would return from their home state after the Holi break. 

The fear of a potential exodus left them wondering how their operations would sustain without migrant labour. The construction sector faced similar anxieties. But the last two weeks following Holi would have given them their answer.

In the face of real or rumoured attacks, Bihari migrant workers usually prefer to wait it out, not withdraw. It’s a short-term recoil, not a retreat. In uncommon instances, they may seek new destinations but they’ve rarely withdrawn from the migrant work pool.

This is evident from how they remained, or left and later returned, in states like Maharashtra when they faced the ire of nativist mobilisation in 2008 and, to a lesser extent, in 2003. The question of return is usually about where and when, not whether. In Assam in 2003, this was seen in the face of more organised violence directed against Bihari migrants – businessmen and workers alike – in which at least 29 died. They stayed on and faced another round of attacks in 2007. More recently, they were at the receiving end of violence in the Kashmir valley.

But none of these led to a lengthy phase of the Bihari worker going missing in these states. Nor did the well-documented exodus of migrant workers during the Covid pandemic. Even before the pandemic abated, there was a clear trend of migrant workers returning to the workplace – and this got more pronounced in later months.

However, these periodic phases of migrant workers from Bihar grappling with actual or rumoured violence, or threats of violence, overlook the normalisation of their negotiation with verbal abuse as a fait accompli. As much as in fields, shops and factories in Punjab, a cart-puller on a Delhi road, or a security guard in a Mumbai apartment, or a worker in a Faridabad mill tries to absorb verbal banalities.

The order of abuse is known, even formulaic. An invective is preceded or followed by the reminder of where the migrant is originally from – ********d Bihari or Bihari ********d. It’s been this way for decades now. Somewhat invisible due to being too mainstream, and the targets being too much from the Hindi heartland, mainly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it does not make for a bleeding heart story. 

Scholar Arvind N Das had noted such abuse in his work The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992). He wrote, “The out-migration of Bihari students, like those of labourers, to places of learning in other parts of India integrates Bihar further into the national labour market even as it produces a quasi-racial backlash in places such as Delhi which have started fearing incursions of Harrys (Biharis) from the east much in the same way as Britain did in the international realm.”

When Das wrote this nearly three decades ago, the regional disparity in economic opportunities, pace of urbanisation and, therefore, per capita income was evident and a key driver of migration. Strikingly, this inter-region difference in economic activities and income, which economists call subnational divergence, has further widened to a significant extent. 

A study on income in different states provides more insight. As noted in an editorial in the Times of India, “In 1989-90, Karnataka’s per capita income at Rs 2,055 a year was almost two times that of Bihar. In 2019-20, the last pre-pandemic year, the gap had widened to over five times with Bihar’s annual per capita income at Rs 29,794 and that of Karnataka at Rs 1,55,869. This trend generally holds across states.”

Such regional lopsidedness in economic opportunities has been the key propellant of migration from a densely populated state like Bihar. This is sometimes also seen in the light of the fact that undivided Bihar felt the rough edge of the freight equalisation policy. The policy deprived Bihar of the huge competitive advantage of being home to enormous mineral resources that were used for industrial development across different parts of the country. Even if it was necessary in the national perspective, the Bihar economy felt short-changed for the resources it had. 

With the separate state of Jharkhand carved out in 2000, the federal injustice of freight equalisation is now essentially a retrospective grouse. The other advantage of fertile soil in the Indo-Gangetic part of the state was blunted by shoddy and unimaginative governance and a huge dependence on agriculture, not to mention the annual scourge of floods impacting some parts of the state.

Along with other factors at play, these economic and historical forces have also decided how a large section of the workforce is likely to move. This has meant that Bihar’s migrants constitute a significant part of India’s 45.36 crore internal migrants. These migrants account for around 40 percent of the country’s population, somehow making a considerable number of Indians a part of India’s moving story, to borrow a phrase from historian Chinmay Tumbe’s book on the history of migration in the country.

As they move to different parts of India, migrants from Bihar have found ways to negotiate truths and half-truths, realities and rumours in equal measure. As most of them became inured to verbal abuse, they grew more alert to their physical security in faraway cities, towns and fields. They had good reason to be – they aren’t good at victimhood because they can’t afford to be.

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