Attacks on Migrant Workers in Ludhiana
Once again, migrant workers, predominantly from UP and Bihar, have been at the receiving end of brutal attack – this time in Ludhiana in Punjab ruled by the Akali-BJP government.
Migrant workers in the industrial town of Ludhiana were protesting against the refusal of the police to lodge complaints or take action in cases of rampant crime against them. Monthly wages of the workers were regularly snatched by criminal ‘biker’ gangs in collusion with the police. On December 3, a worker was stabbed and his money robbed by a youth mounted on a motorbike. This was the catalyst for the large gathering of workers who protested by blockading the highway. Instead of responding to their demand for credible action against the criminals who targeted migrant workers, the police cane-charged them. Workers responded by blockading a nearby train line and some retaliated by pelting stones at the police. The deadlock continued all night. On the morning of December 4, a large police force was called in along with a large number of criminal-minded local youth. A joint attack was launched by the latter on workers with swords, iron rods, and rifle butts. Workers’ homes were torched, and many rounds fired even inside workers’ homes. Women were beaten and abused. The attack lasted several hours, in presence of senior police officials – the IG, SSP and DSP.
Workers eventually managed to evict the attackers from their settlement, and then assembled on one side of the train line, with police and the goons on the other side. At this point, it seemed that the police were preparing for a firing. At this point, CPI(ML) leaders – State committee member Tarsem Jodha, RYA State Secretary Hasmeet and other party leaders Prakash Hissowal, Com Shinder Jawaddi reached the spot and intervened. On their insistence, one party comrade Ramakant was allowed to cross to the other side and talk to the workers, on assurance that the police would not advance further. This eased the tension somewhat and the workers could return to their homes. The police however, extended curfew to even the residential settlements of the workers.
Shamefully, the Akali-BJP Govt is responding to the workers’ genuine resentment by trying to recreate the chauvinistic frenzy against the workers that has been witnessed by the MNS and Shiv Sena in Congress-ruled Maharashtra.
This is not the first time such violence against migrants is being witnessed in Punjab. In Punjab, migrants have always played a major role in both agriculture and industry. But in the past few years there have been growing instances of targeting of migrants; there had once been a bomb blast in a cinema hall featuring a Bhojpuri film, and in 2005, migrant workers were badly beaten up by the police. Such attempts to sully the atmosphere are nothing but a ploy to divide the working class and crush the voice of protest of all workers. Even today, industry is badly affected by the insecurity of workers, who are scared to return home late from work. Many have migrated elsewhere, scared by the threat issued by assailants that migrants (abusively called ‘bhaiyyas’) should ‘leave Punjab’ by December 25. Some industrialists have responded by offering that workers stay all night – thus using even the workers’ insecurity to exploit them further!
Ironically, the Shiv Sena - which targets Hindi-speaking migrants in Maharashtra – has in Ludhiana posed as champion of migrants in Punjab and tried to give the whole issue a communal turn. Nitish Kumar Government of Bihar too has adopted an attitude of ostensible concern for the workers’ safety and has sent a team to Punjab. But Nitish’s façade of ‘protector of Bihari workers’ is a farce when the discrimination and violence is being unleashed at the behest of his own political allies – the Akali-BJP combine.
Protests were held at Delhi and Patna by the AICCTU and AIALA protesting the violence in Ludhiana, and also demanding protective legislation and institutional measures to defend the rights of migrant workers.
Following the attack on migrant workers in Ludhiana by police and goons on December 4, the CPI(ML) took up a campaign demanding protection of workers from the bikers’ gangs that were robbing and attacking them; compensation for those injured in the firing by police and goons; compensation for the looted and damaged property and burnt houses and action against the police officials who colluded with the attackers, as well as arrest and prosecution of the attackers.
A leaflet raising these demands and calling for a mass meeting on December 10 was distributed widely (some 15, 000 copies) in the workers’ settlements. The police retaliated by raiding homes and shops of CPI(ML) workers and arresting one activist, Comrade Babban. On December 10, a large police contingent was deployed at the mass meeting spot, which cane-charged the hundreds of workers who defied intimidation to attend the meeting.
December 10 (Human Rights Day) was also observed as a state-wide protest day against police and feudal atrocities on workers, migrants and dalits as well as rising prices and issues of land and livelihood. Protests were held at Barnala, Sangrur, Bathinda, Moga and Mansa. At Mansa, hundreds of workers gheraoed the DC’s office for hours in a militant protest, led by district secretary Bhagwant Singh Samaon.
On December 12, a state level team of party leaders visited the area, collected reports and expressed solidarity with the workers. On December 14-15 and AIALA team comprising AIALA President and CPI(ML) CCM Comrade Rameshwar Prasad as well as Comrade Vidyanand Vikal from Bihar, visited Ludhiana, and met the affected migrant workers.
On December 20, a team of university teachers from Delhi visited the area and prepared a fact-finding report on the incident and the aftermath. (see accompanying report).
Dalit Youth Shot Dead by Landed Criminals in Punjab
On 4 October, a dalit youth Jeevan Singh (a brick-kiln worker) was shot dead in public by high caste Jatts for raising his voice against casteist humiliations by the latter in Chuhar Chakk village of Moga District, Punjab. Moga is part of the same Malwa region of Punjab where such atrocities against dalit labourers have grown – such as the assault on Bant Singh Jhabbar some years ago.
Jeevan Singh, 22, had dared to stop a Jatt youth from playing obscene songs on his tractor-stereo at loud volume when crossing in front of dalit homes and speeding on a street where small children were playing. A gang of powerful Jatts ld by a criminal ‘Dhanna’ which also enjoys political backing of the Akali Dal, and have often indulged in acts that terrorize dalit villagers with impunity (complaints to Police were not even registered in previous cases) took this assertion of dignity as a challenge to their feudal domination. The Jatt youth returned with his father, Dhanna and the latter’s gang, fired at the crowd, injuring 7, and then shot Jeevan dead while he was standing at a shop.
District leaders of the CPI(ML) Teerath Singh Madhoke and Hukam Raj reached the village where workers gheraoed the thana to make the police register an FIR against the killers. On 6 October, CPI(ML) leaders from Mansa and Ludhiana and a fact finding team of RYA lead by Hasmeet Singh visited the victim's family. On 10 October, CPI(ML) held a press conference in Chandigarh to highlight the issue. The press conference was addressed by the mother as well as the brother of the victim as well as Comrade Tarsem Jodhan, RYA Punjab President Kanwaljit and General Secretary Hasmeet Singh. Jeevan Singh’s mother Kuldeep Kaur demanded justice for her son, having rejected attempts to get her to “settle” the case by accepting land and cash. On 12 October, CPI(ML), Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, RYA and labourers of village held a dharna and gherao of Police Station Mehna, under which the village Chuhar Chakk falls, demanding immediate arrest of main accused. A joint action committee headed by Hukkam Raj of Mazdoor Mukti Morcha was formed with other dalit and labour organizations.
On 16 October, a dharna was held and a deputation from the joint action committee met the DC Moga demanding compensation to the family and immediate arrest of prime-accused. Under pressure, the police eventually arrested Dhanna, the youth who had initiated the clash and his father But the police bias is evident from the fact that the vehicles and weapons used in the attack are yet to be recovered and compensation yet to be paid to the family of Jeevan Singh as well as those of the injured.
Teachers’ Fact-Finding Report in Ludhiana Incident
A fact-finding team of university teachers from Delhi visited Ludhiana on 20.12.2009 to ascertain the facts of the incidents of violence involving migrant workers that have gripped the industrial part of the city.
The team visited Dhandari kalan and Sherpur and spoke to a large number of migrant workers and visited their homes. The team found that despite a large number of the migrant workforce (around 12 lakhs) living in Ludhiana for over 15 years, sometimes even much longer, a majority of them had no voting rights or ration cards. Even when they applied for voters I cards, their applications were rejected on spurious grounds. It is not surprising that no political party, not even the local Member of Parliament, Mr. Manish Tiwari, has bothered to visit them. This attitude percolates down to the bureaucracy and police force, who treat the migrant workers as virtually second class citizens.
It was found that:
1) The migrant workers have for the past 2-3 months been gripped by a sense of fear and insecurity following a series of violent attacks by ‘biker gangs’, in which several workers were injured, attacked, robbed of their daily earnings, with one worker even succumbing to his injuries later in PGI.
2) The workers were greatly agitated that the police refused to file any complaints about these incidents of loot and attack. On 3rd December, when the workers assembled at the Dhandhari PS to complain of yet another attack on them, the police hurled abuses at them and pushed them out of the gate, locking the gate to the PS. The workers jammed the highway close to the PS in the hope that the police would open the gates and come out and listen to them. However, the police responded by opening lathi charge and tear gas. This incensed a section of the workers into burning eight cars.
3) The police meanwhile refused to engage/ negotiate with the surging crowds of the workers, numbering according to eyewitnesses, around ten thousand. Instead, it sent messages to the neighbouring villages such as Pammi and Dhandari that migrant workers were marching towards their villages to loot and burn, and that the police was unable to control the crowds. The Police thus asked the local population to join them in controlling the migrant workers. Thus, an issue which was essentially a workers versus administration was maliciously turned by the administration into a migrant versus local issue.
4) On the 4th Dec., there was a pitched battle between the workers on side of the railway track at Dhandari kalan and the police and its army of anti-social criminal elements. The latter were brandishing, according to eyewitnesses, swords and iron rods as well as fire arms. The workers were trying to resist the entry of these criminal elements into their neighbourhood by pelting stones, however by around noon, they were pushed back and while the police provided them cover, these criminals entered the neighbourhood of Ishwar Colony and created mayhem.
5) The team in its visit to the various bedas (workers’ settlements) found them deserted, with a large majority of workers residing there having fled or missing. Only about 20 per cent of the original inhabitants remained with whom the team interacted. The Ishwar Colony, for instance, has 125 rooms and each room houses 4-5 roommates. When we visited the complex on Sunday, only about 15 people remained.
6) We found one room after another burnt, the belongings reduced to cinders. There were clear remnants of forcible entry: sword and spear marks on aluminium doors; in Pooja Complex, the lock to the main gate had been broken with a bullet shot; scooters, bikes and an auto rickshaw were burnt. The six shops in the Ishwar Complex were all completely burnt.
7) Eyewitnesses and victims told us how they had returned from their night shift and were hiding inside their rooms while the clashes were on at the railway track. They had locked themselves inside their little rooms when the attackers came and set their rooms on fire. Women and children were manhandled, men attacked with rods and swords. Eye witnesses told us that on the 4th, men were taken to hospital with their heads bleeding, and deep gashes made by swords on their faces.
8) The team spoke to SSP Ludhiana who claimed that the workers had set their own houses on fire by themselves! While the people we met told us that they had filed complaints in the PS about the arson at their shops (in Ishwar Colony) and the huge losses incurred by them they were yet to receive a copy of their complaints. We raised this issue with the SSP and he said that no FIR had been filed till now (after 16 days), and if the need arose, these complaints could be accommodated in the FIR about the burning of the vehicles. He also dismissed the possibility of the existence of any biker gangs. This reflects the apathy and prejudice which is characteristic of the administration’s response towards the problems of the migrant workers. It is inconceivable that workers who work for 12 -14 hours a day, live in tiny rooms with no ventilation, 4-5 people in one room in almost sub-human conditions, to be able to survive and save some money, to have set their own belongings on fire.
The people of the area have made the following demands:
1) Compensation to be paid for all the losses incurred.
2) Given the prevailing atmosphere of fear, there should be a CRPF camp to secure the neighbourhood. The people have lost all faith in the local police.
3) The 42 migrant workers who have been arrested should be immediately released
4) Charges against those responsible for the violence on migrant workers be framed without delay.
Signed: Tanweer Fazal, Sanghamitra Misra, Manisha Sethi, Ahmed Sohaib for Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association