Covid-19, Migrants and the Republic

Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee*

Much has already been said and written about the plight of the migrants during the lockdown necessitated by the current Covid-19 outbreak in India. The visual images of their endless walk – which reminds us of the fearful and anxious flight of Partition refugees – in their desperate bid to reach home in the scorching summer heat on almost empty stomachs with throats parched (women in tow with the children on men’s shoulders and their meagre belongings on the heads) is utterly heart-wrenching to say the least. Whatever be the cause, it is a living testimony to the entrenched structures of poor governance that define our polity. It is also revealing of the class character of the Indian state, a term that has for long left the public discourse of our republic. One need not invoke Marx or be a communist to see the glaring contrast in the ways, for instance, state functionaries conduct themselves at airports in Delhi or Kochi and railway stations at Barkakana in Jharkhand or Bapu Dham, Motihari in Bihar.

Whereas the evacuation of Indian immigrants by air constitutes the hyper-real world of India’s growing economic and geo-political clout and gives a feel-good sense to the Indian middle classes (courtesy, among others, the Arnab Goswamis and Sudhir Chaudharys of the media world), the uncouth, under-clothed, underfed, noisy migrants begging for ration and transport sully our hard-earned image of a global super power. They remind us of our persisting socio- economic grotesqueness and abject poverty amidst the aesthetically sanitized citadels of high consumption and civic life – swanky malls, well-manicured parks, multiplexes, gated apartments, boulevards and tree-lined avenues. What Covid-19 has done is to bring in public sight the city’s underbelly – something that has always been there and which we so often wish to just camphor away.

It is not that we can do without them. We need our domestic helps, cab drivers, sanitation workers, delivery boys, cobblers, phhuchkawallas, dudhwalas and sabziwallas. They are also needed, as we hear these days so often, to keep the wheels of the “fast growing” Indian economy running. They are the ones who work in the factories big and small. They are the ones who help make enterprises profitable by their sheer vulnerability as informal labour. They are the ones who are the living embodiments of all the post-liberalization labour reforms that one can possibly think of. They are the ones whom you can freely hire and fire for cutting labour costs and staying competitive in an increasingly expanding global market. It is they whose silent compact with the capital disinvests them of any iota of social security but makes (or will make) India, as economists tell us, the ultimate destination of global investment and consumption.

Call them by any name – migrants, precariat, informal sector, unorganized labour – they are not like us. They may be human beings but their extraordinary physical tenacity (to withstand, we think, all kinds of back-breaking, dehumanized work) makes them different from us. This view is not necessarily correct but we would like to believe it is, for that helps us to justify their “work and fate” and of course, keep our moral and ethical conscience in place. Otherwise how does one digest the fact that our compatriots are okay walking miles on railway tracks and getting crushed by trains; or being beaten black and blue by the policemen on the highways for the enforcement of lockdown or whenever they murmur about lack of food, job or money as they did in Mumbai, Surat, Bengaluru and other Indian cities. Like it or not, we have internalized the axiom that human dignity is not indivisible. For centuries, the ideology of caste taught us that human dignity is necessarily differentially distributed across social groups. Sadly, our republic too, in spite of its lofty pronouncements, continues to distribute it asymmetrically across classes and (ethnic) communities. That brings us to the central question of citizenship and, obviously, the concomitant question of its anchoring in an idea of India which remains vacuous of its own republican ideals as the current crisis clearly shows.

Why should the place of origin of a migrant be the foundational premise of a migrant qua an Indian citizen, particularly in a crisis of such extraordinary proportion like the current one? As an Indian citizen with the fundamental right of free movement for livelihood within the length and breadth of the Union of India, does not a migrant, or any migrant, have a set of entitlements that will ensure her/his well-being wherever s/he happens to be at a particular point in time, more so when her/his physical immobility is because of extraneous circumstances like the governmental declaration of a nation-wide lockdown? Of course, ideally speaking, migrants – and mind you, they are not the external, foreign ones that the present political regime is so obsessed with – do have the right to visit whatever place they call home the way the rich and powerful have irrespective of their places of origin or ethnic identity. But then the government policy guidelines pertaining to the movement of migrants, unlike the latter, probably unwittingly ethnicizes their identities based on the states they come from and the communities they belong too; by essentializing the destitute migrants’ identities along ethnic-communal lines unlike those of the empowered elite, the ruling apparatus creates a hierarchical public order wherein the former are
treated as the vast mass of regionals and the latter as a small bunch of privileged nationals (or even globals).

And indeed, the Indian state places the moral (and practical) onus on the regional states to ensure that their “people” – the hapless migrants – are brought back home. This logic can be seen in the much-debated policy of state governments contributing 15 per cent of train fare to the Indian Railways for the inter-state transfer of migrants. It is not about the logistics of governance or the much-hyped cooperative federalism of India. It is about that pernicious idea which renders migrants’ class/economic identity as labour redundant and makes them Biharis, Jharkhandis, Bengalis and Odiyas. The same Indian state which went to town with the slogan of One Tax, One Nation, One Market to roll out the GST is hesitant to extend the same logic when it comes to the dis-privileged and deprived laboring classes; capital, it obviously seems, needs no marking by either race or culture or nationality, but labour must be ethnically recognizable; indeed, while capital is about un-boundedness and un-belongingness, “globalized/nationalized” labour is characterized by clear borders (both ethno-cultural and political) and deep-rootedness. Now, this approach goes not only against the grain of our constitutional ethos but the very idea of India.

We gave ourselves the constitution as “people” and citizens of India; not as a conglomeration of different ethnic groups, castes and communities. True, we did take cognizance of communities and their culturally distinctive identities. But that was animated by the higher ideal of protecting them from historically entrenched prejudices and in the long run, preserving their traditions and identities. In the current situation, we are creating new structures of prejudices by distinguishing migrants and pigeonholing them according to their states of origin and ethnicity. Perhaps, without realizing, we are according legitimacy to new societal cleavages and identitarian fault lines. Look at the illogicality of this logic: A Bihari male worker who has harvested crops in Ludhiana in Punjab for the last thirty years remains the moral and policy (read practical) burden of the state of Bihar and not the Republic of India (or even Punjab), and he will get his ration only in the PDS shop of his home district; though the government is now contemplating on reworking the ration card policy to divest it of its narrow and limited usability, yet we have to agree that that this is not only too little but also too late. So much for the idea of one, united India; the pandemic, admittedly, lays bare the fragile character of this grand idea.

An Odiya man who has worked in a restaurant in Goa or Rajasthan for the last twenty years, and if he returns to Goa or Rajasthan after a short vacation in his village in Odisha and unfortunately catches Covid-19 virus, he has no access to free treatment offered by the Government of Goa or Rajasthan simply because ethnically he is not a Goan or Rajasthani. Seriously, where and what are we heading towards? Effectively, migrants are nowhere people – used, abused and disowned at will. Let us not be misled by the showering of rose petals on them when they disembark from a train in Jharkhand or Telengana. These photo-ops are (ironically) the sad reminders that we have stopped counting them as citizens of this country, as Indians first and foremost. They are the republic’s footloose labour – the easy targets in a communal or ethnic riot, to be disciplined and punished at other times, and to be exhorted now to contribute to economic revival at the cost of their safety and dignified living. They could be anything but not the citizens of our great republic, for that would mean many more uncomfortable questions particularly in the time of Covid-19. It is better to remain glued to the newly re-invigorated muscular nationalism and keep ourselves obsessively preoccupied with issues like LOC violations and Islamic conspiracies, for they, unfortunately, seem to matter more to our great nation than the crores of these nameless and faceless brethren who once constituted the very idea of India and who gave her republic its force de vie. Sadly, it has now taken a pandemic of mind-boggling proportions to show us how we failed to fight the class character of the Indian state and to keep the great republican promise.
As the ethno-economic migrants, internal though they are, continue to journey on in foot or thelas or bicycles, we need to sit up and ask why exactly we allowed the collapse of substantive citizenship, the republican ideal and the liberal vision of India. *
*Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee are faculty members at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and University of Delhi respectively.




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