I have not been to villages of Kankuan, Atarra or Natarra, but their lyrical and exotic names and their proximity to my birthplace Tikamgarh provide me with some elements necessary to recount the tale of a rather strange robbery. The villages fall within Mahoba district in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest and most arid parts of Bundelkhand. Wayside dacoities are regrettably not rare in this area perennially gripped by shortages of food and water. Recently, a 15-year-old was booked for trying to rob a water tanker delivering water to the nearby Mudhari village. Shortages have spawned legendary folk heroes like Alha and Oodal in the area. Alha Khand, a long poem about the short and tragic lives of these Robin Hood-like brothers, is still sung by traditional bards. Getting into fights and dying young is still considered dying naturally and honourably here.

Mrinal Pande

According to the villagers, these men were landless wanderers who eked out a living by working in others’ fields. What with the drought now in its fifth year or so, they were probably starving. Their names were not listed among those who exist below the poverty line and are entitled to subsidized foodgrains. It requires no great leap of imagination to understand the desperation that must have driven the three desperados to snatch food and drinking water in any form. The district magistrate of Kulpahad district, however, assured the reporters that when Lakhan, Pancham and Chandrakaran are apprehended, they would be served the most drastic punishment.

Bags of foodgrains, police beat constable Ram Sajivan agreed, were increasingly being looted in the area. But this, he said, was the first time the robbery of a fistful of cooked food had taken place.

India may have prospered considerably since the appalling age of annual famines when men were forced to eat dog and families perished like flies, but pockets of acute hunger such as Kankuan and Natarra still exist. Only, our memory is so short or perhaps so base that men like Raj Thackeray of Mumbai have the audacity to declare that no starving migrants from outside be allowed to set foot in Maharashtra. Those that were already in must be driven out of the city by force, because they were contaminating and disfiguring Aamchi ( our) Mumbai. Thackeray is not the only leader to display such callousness. Each year, a large number of men and women from the poor states of Bihar, Orissa or Chhattisgarh migrate to various metros. They do not go out for holidaying or enjoying the sea breezes and eating vada pav on the beach. They are there because faced with acute hunger back home, their primary dharma is to feed themselves and those that they love.

Isn’t this what has driven billions of immigrants across the world through centuries? When my Maharashtrian ancestors, for example, migrated way back in late 17th century from the Konkan to the foothills of the Himalayas, they were driven out of their native land by hordes of invaders of all nationalities and castes, feasting off a dying Mughal empire. Mercifully, they landed in an area where even homeless migrants speaking an alien tongue were received with a compassion and generosity that seems so visibly lacking in many of their (far more prosperous) progeny in the India of today. It makes you want to curl up and die of shame.

Actually, it is not so much the local men and women who have changed for the worse, it is the cynical politicization of the issue by militant groups like the Shiv Sena, the United Liberation Front of Asom and International Babbar Khalsa. Most murderous attacks on migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal or Bangladesh were a result of sectarian leaders urging the “sons of the soil" to throw out all immigrants or else they themselves would be outnumbered and displaced. They do this not out of any genuine goodwill for the locals but to consolidate their vote banks. To the media they say that the outsiders got beaten up because they are criminals/dirty and had crowded up the job market. Our followers are not racists or xenophobes, the leaders say. They are just some poor, frustrated and jobless young men who periodically get bored/angry and want to let it all out.

But the question arises why in state after state these bored, non-racist, non-parochial sons of the soil will attack only the poorest and the most defenceless among migrants: taxi drivers, pavement vendors, tea plantation labourers and construction site workers.

Why haven’t they ever gone flashing those sticks and swords and dared to storm the palatial houses of rich Hindi-, Gujarati-, Tamil-, Telugu- or Bengali-speaking corporate honchos, moneylenders, film stars, cricketers, and some members of Parliament with murderous records whose nationality is under scrutiny?

Is it only chance? Think about it.

(Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at theotherside@livemint.com)