Around 5,000 migrant workers from Assam and other parts of the country were rounded up in a supposed 'document-verification drive', after a pro-Hindutva organisation alleged that they were illegal immigrants.
On Wednesday evening, the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Kodagu, Suman D Pennekar issued an order to all police stations in Kodagu to conduct a document-verification drive.
Hundreds of migrant workers, who are employed in the numerous coffee plantations in Kodagu, hotels and also daily-wage workers from other parts of the state were asked to bring in their identity documents, which were all registered online.
SP Suman said that most of the people who took part in the drive had valid documents and for around 500 odd of those who did not have documents, the jurisdictional police have instructed the coffee plantation owners and employers to help them source or procure the required identity documents.
How a scuffle led to document drive
Speaking to TNM, Deepu Devaiah, a coffee plantation owner affiliated with Bajrang Dal, said it all started when he approached a few migrant workers from Assam, who were residing in a lodge in Kodagu’s Napoklu, asking them to work for him in his plantation.
Deepu said that he offered to pay each of them Rs 250 per day to work in the plantation on Tuesday morning. However, the workers allegedly informed him that they would not work for low pay.
“I had received information that some illegal immigrants were living in that lodge. I obviously couldn’t approach them that way, so in order to find out more, I went to ask if they would work. But they refused,” Deepu said.
On Tuesday evening, Deepu, along with several other Bajrang Dal members, allegedly tried to barge into the lodge. They were stopped by Haris, an RTI activist, and around 40 to 50 protesters, who had camped outside the lodge and were shouting slogans against the profiling of migrant workers.
“We told them that they had no right to barge in and threaten innocent people and violate their human rights. We asked them to take it up legally,” Haris told TNM.
As an argument broke out outside the lodge, the Napoklu police, whose station is located a few meters away from the spot, arrived to intervene. It was then that Deepu complained to the police that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were living in the lodge.
The police rounded up the migrant workers and asked them to bring their documents for verification. “All of them had their ID cards. We questioned them and let them go on Tuesday night itself,” Napoklu police said.
Deepu claimed that the documentation drive was conducted following the scuffle on Tuesday to make it easier to track migrant workers. "There are so many of them who come here, work and go back. Some live in the plantations but others live in lodges. Who will keep track of them?" he asked.
According to activist Haris, there has been a demand to document the identities of migrant workers for a long time in Kodagu district, and the documentation drive was conducted due to pressure from local pro-Hindu groups and the local politicians.
“There are so many migrant workers in Kodagu. Freedom of movement is our fundamental right but the people who live here always categorise them as illegal immigrants. If the person is a Hindu, then no one will bother but if the person is from the Muslim community, they are looked at with suspicion. That is what happened on Tuesday. These workers were simply labelled illegal immigrants and the pressure was so much on the police to round them up,” Haris alleged.
‘Nothing to do with NRC’: Cops
SP Suman categorically denied that the documentation drive had anything to do with profiling or the National Register of Citizens (NRC). She said that the coffee plantation owners were asked to bring in their workers and ensure that they are registered online.
“Document verification of workers has been done for decades in Kodagu. This is to keep track of the workers in plantations. It helps police track them down if there are allegations of bonded labour. In many criminal cases, when we don’t know who is who, the accused abscond. It is just to create a database,” SP Suman said.
“This had nothing to do with NRC. It is not the police’s job to do that. For those who did not have documents, we have given them time to produce it,” she added.