Caught in the crossfire

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Bullets vs bread For most migrants the choice is between dodging bullets and starving
Bullets vs bread For most migrants the choice is between dodging bullets and starving. Photo: Ujjal Deb

Moksidul Aslam, 24, was cooking dinner for his colleagues, when an explosion ripped through their makeshift tent at a construction site in the commercial area of Imphal. The explosion on 13 September left nine of Aslam’s coworkers at the construction site dead, and 11 others injured. The victims were all migrant labourers.

State police blames underground rebel groups for the attack. This was the third attack on migrant labourers in the state this year. On 27 June, rebels indiscriminately shot at two migrant labourers from Bihar. Later, on 27 July another labourer was shot dead in Imphal.

“That night some men entered our tents and asked us to vacate. We did not heed to their demand, I do not know if that resulted in this attack. We did not come here to create political problems. We just wanted to earn a little money so that our family doesn’t starve back home,” Alam says.

Since 2001, at least 101 migrant labourers have been killed in the state, after the rebels groups turned anti-migrants. Joint coordinating body of seven rebel groups, CorCom, which operates in Imphal, has issued repeated threats to ‘outsiders’ and ‘migrants’ to leave Manipur or ‘face the music’. In 2012, the CorCom issued a decree ordering migrants to leave the state before 2013.

“Attacks on migrant laborers are nothing new here. Rebel groups have targeted them on several occasions. Each time it happens, police increases security. But soon it is back to square one,” says Abdul Sheikh, a labour supplier from lower Assam. Sheikh regularly supplies migrant Muslim labourers to contractors in Manipur.

Following the 13 September attack, migrant labourers in and around Imphal were relocated to government shelters in and around the city. “The situation is more complex than what it seems. As of now, we cannot guarantee that there won’t be any more attacks. The temporary relief is just to overcome the fear psychosis and give more confidence to these migrants,” says Jayenta Singh, superintendent of police, Imphal west.

Manipur has witnessed anti-outsider drives for over a decade now and poor migrant workers like Aslam have been the worst hit. According to the 2011 census, nearly a third of the 22.93 lakh people in Manipur are non-Manipuris.

“The migrant issue is Manipur is a paradox. Majority of the migrant population in Manipur are daily wage labourers. Ethnic politics demands an anti-migrant stand, so everyone chips in and this gives rebels the upper hand. For the politicians, migrants are not a vote bank, so they do not bother. After every attack, the migrants flee in thousands only to be replaced by a few hundred again. Manipur needs the migrants for odd jobs and as construction labourers. They are cheap to hire. A local Manipuri would rather join a rebel outfit and earn quick money than do odd jobs,” said a local journalist who did not want to be named.

For many migrant labourers, it is a choice between dodging bullets and starving. Saidul Akbar, 27, a labourer in lower Assam, who was transferred to the government shelter, says, “If we return home, there will be no livelihood and here our life is at risk. However, here in Manipur, we have a source of income and we would like to stay back. I have been working in Manipur for seven years and there is no dearth of work. I do not mind taking the risk. I can at least earn for my family till a bullet hits me.”

With inputs from RK Suresh

ratnadip@tehelka.com

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A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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