Haresh Jhala | Oct 17, 2018 | 5 min read
Total recall: Oriya migrants in Gujarat remember another exodus
After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, lakhs of Oriya workers fled from Surat fearing violence, briefly bringing the city’s power loom industry to a standstill
Surat: The rape of a 14-month-old girl, allegedly by a Bihari factory worker in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district last month, had led to attacks on migrants in several neighbouring districts. News reports suggest that close to 60,000 UP and Bihari workers fled from the northern parts of the state over the next few days, prompting police and administration action to clamp down on attacks and reassure these guest workers. The impact of this on Gujarat’s industry and economy is yet to be realised but the consensus in Surat is that this incident pales in comparison to the exodus Surat witnessed 26 years ago, which halted production across the power loom sector for almost half a year.
Post the Babri Mosque demolition on December 6, 1992, Surat had witnessed one of the worst communal riots in its history during which 150 people were killed and over 20,000 had to be given shelter in relief camps. As the riots unfolded and rumours fuelled more violence, frightened Oriya migrant labourers fled back to their native state in large numbers. Single male labourers were especially vulnerable as the curfew imposed across most of the city stranded them without food or money. This had forced at least seven lakh workers to leave Surat, according to community leaders, crippling the power loom industry where most of them were employed. For almost three to four months, textile factories in and around the city, which were cumulatively operating some 3.5-4 lakh power looms, were compelled to pull down their shutters. The state government constituted a committee led by Surat MP, the late Kashiram Rana, and secretary S K Nanda and other officers who visited Odisha to convince workers to return to a now-peaceful Surat.
Bhagirath Behera, who heads the Surat Odisha Welfare Association, says he was among the members of the committee that was sent to Odisha on this mission. “As far as I remember, most of the bachelor workers had fled the city fearing food and money scarcity, and the rumour mills were at their peak that the riots would continue for longer and soon there will be no food at all. News of alleged systematic killing and looting of certain communities also forced the labourers to flee for their safety,” he says.
In April 1993, the team visited Odisha for 15 days, covering many villages in Ganjam, Puri and Cuttack districts. “We conducted meetings with returned labourers and appealed for them to return to Surat, as by then the situation had returned to normal. We convinced them that there is no curfew and the factories were operational. They need not stay behind and continue to lose their incomes,” says Behera, adding that they had to make the workers realise that if they didn’t return, factory owners would start hiring others. “Even, after that, it took at least two months for normalcy to be restored and the power loom factories to once again start functioning at 90% of installed capacity,” he says.
On the contrary, most of those who had families and had been living in Surat for a while prefered to stay back during the chaos towards the end of 1992, and even during the suspected-plague in 1994 and in 1997 when there was panic and exodus after an astrologer predicted damage to the Ukai Dam on the Tapi River, some 97 kilometres upstream of the city, according to Bideshibhai Sahoo, an elder in the community. “I was around 27 in 1992 and working as a salesman with a leading processing unit in Surat. Daily, thousands of labourers were boarding trains bound towards Odisha and all appeals for them to stay back were going in vain, particularly because bachelors were finding it hard to even get food because of the curfew,” adds Sahoo.
In 1992, Srikant Raut was just a 12-year-old school-going kid, living with his family in Surat’s Bamroli area. Yet, Raut vaguely remembers that due to communal riots, his family and neighbours had given shelter to a few Muslim families on the rooftop of their shanties. They were provided food for at least three to four days, after which they had returned to their homes. Sahoo's family, who were settled in Surat, did not think of fleeing the city when many brothers from Oriya community were rushing back home.
However, this time around, since the attacks were concentrated in north and central Gujarat and focussed primarily on UP-ites and Biharis, Oriya migrants in Surat did not feel affected, says Behera. “The community has gelled well with Gujaratis since its maiden presence in the late 80's. There were one or two isolated cases of harassment in Kapodra area but other than that Oriya labourers did not face any trouble in the city and surrounding areas,” he says. In Surat at least, Oriya migrants have rarely got into confrontations with locals in more than two decades, according to him.
Oriya people attending a social function organised by the community recently in Surat
Bhagirath Behera, head of Surat Odisha Welfare Association, with other community leaders in an event
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