This narrative has emerged several times in the past.

As Jisha murder investigation crawls on Kerala medias anti-migrant face on display again JusticeforJisha/Facebook
Voices Crime Thursday, May 05, 2016 - 20:16

When 30-year-old Jisha was murdered at her home in Perumbavoor on April 28, the preliminary investigation failed to find anything substantial. The police then informed the media that although the police found no evidence pointing to the accused, the investigation would be extended towards migrant labourers, as Perumbavoor is home to a large number of them.

The classification and profiling of Perumbavoor as a town with a considerable proportion of migrant labourers contributed little to moving the investigation further, even a week after the incident. But what it did was to foreground once again the narrative painting migrant labourers as responsible for increased criminal activities in the state.

This narrative, has emerged several times in the past, sometimes gaining explicit prominence but often remaining an assumption implicitly accepted in conversations about migrants.

In 2015, for instance, one media report quoted data from the District Crime Records Bureau to the effect that of 38 murder cases in the previous five years, 32 involved migrants “directly or indirectly”, and a total of 323 cases related to migrant labourers were registered in that five-year period.

Unquestioningly accepting the veracity of the police version of the situation, it then said that measures like maintaining lists of migrant labourers and registering them with the police were inadequate since, “The accused often flee the state after the crime and bringing them back from remote villages is a cumbersome task.”

Indeed, the problems that migrant labourers face appear on a handful select occasions: once every year on migrant’s day, a few other times in the year when migrants face particularly horrifying troubles, and on those almost impossible occasions when a migrant wins a lottery or does something equally improbable.  The rest of the time, almost all reportage on migrants is focused only around district and state-wide crime records.

This pattern of linking migrant labourers with crime has now repeated in Jisha’s case too. The police took a number of suspects into custody, but has still not been able to nab the culprit, much to the fury of the public. What began as “extending the investigation to migrant labourers” in the Deputy Superintendent’s words, soon focused entirely on them and transformed into a sentiment against migrant labourers.

As details of the murder began to unfold, the Malayali conscience was quick to awaken.  “Whoever did such a heinous crime should be punished,” they said. “Never in the history of Kerala has such a gruesome act taken place,” they said.

While voices of reason made the straightforward demand that the killer be brought to book, some others passionately argued that the Malayali psyche is incapable of committing ‘such’ a heinous crime.

The undertone of this argument was clear: Malayalis may be capable of committing crimes, but not a heinous one as this, and thus the killer could not be from the state. All this, despite the claims of Jisha’s family members that they have been systematically isolated, and possibly even harassed, by members of the neighbourhood for years.

On Thursday, the media reported that two migrant labourers, one of them from Bengal, were taken into custody, after phone records showed that one of the two had made calls to Jisha in the past.

Details are important for any story, and the media went berserk over details this time around too. A popular Malayalam news channel reported that the police recovered a pair of bloodstained slippers from Jisha’s house. The reporter went on to describe the slippers as ones that are worn by migrant labourers. Not workers, not people in Kerala, but the kind of slippers that migrant labourers wear.

The ongoing investigation over Jisha’s murder might indeed find a migrant labourer to be the culprit. But there is still a wide gulf between that fact and the claim to a difference of psyches between Malayalis and migrants that seem to almost predispose the latter to crime.

And it takes nothing away from the statistical fact that despite all of the media reportage and myth-making about criminal migrants, there exist crime records that show that, in as many as 85 per cent of cases registered between 2014 and 2015, the suspects were men from Kerala.

But most importantly, it does not and can never serve as the pretext of violence against migrants, such as occurred on Wednesday in Kottayam, where a migrant worker who had come to Kerala from Assam that morning died after locals bound him up for an alleged robbery and left him on the lying on a road.

In the wake of an anti-migrant sentiment clouding mindsets, this piece of news would probably not shake the conscience of people as much as Jisha’s murder did. And there lies the further injustice of this unfolding tragedy.


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