Skip to main content

Did Modi seek to ensure migrants don't leave cities, quietly accept lockdown burden?

By Anand K Sahay*
Some images and events will not easily go away from memory. These are of a kind that brings up anger, a sense of loss of decency in those in whom we placed our trust, institutional failure, and diminishing faith in the state system as run at present.
The first imprinted image in this category, established in media photographs, is of the poor walking out of cities -- the long march by hundreds of thousands to villages, their emotional home, hundreds of kilometers away -- after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first national lockdown in March.
As lakhs left cities, thousands thronged the Anand Vihar bus station on the eastern periphery of Delhi, in their innocence believing they will find inter-state buses that will take them home. Yhey were met with crude state resistance.
The later drama of police lathis being rained on the thousands of the fraternity of the working poor at Mumbai’s Bandra station is also an unforgettable picture. Their fault too was that they wanted to get home quickly. In the time of pandemic they had no wages, no money left for food or rent in surroundings that had suddenly turned alien.
Throw into this jumble of images a judicial obiter dictum which is as crude as it is galling- an unsubtle variant of a police lathi charge. In disposing of a PIL filed on April 1, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court asked why it was necessary for migrant workers to receive wages when they were being provided free cooked food. (For a time the Delhi government, when the clamour for relief rose, said it had distributed ten lakh meals to stranded workers, but acknowledged being hard-pressed.)
Their lordships have evidently missed a trick or two in their officious lives. They have yet to learn to stand for hours in a line for half-cooked khichri and find the treat has run out by the time it’s their turn. Better still, let them stand in the doorway of five-star hotels to beg for food, savour the delicacies dished out as charity, but be deprived of their money wages. The meaning of justice might then become clearer.
Max Seydewitz, a Social Democratic Party member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) when Hitler, unleashing Nazi storm-troopers and heavily nationalist propaganda, bulldozed his way to power in 1933, has something to say that fits our present picture somewhat. 
In a standout book describing that wretched era, “Civil Life in Wartime Germany: The Story of the Home Front” (New York, The Viking Press, 1945), published after he had formed the Socialist Workers’ Party, the German politician wrote that the regime “took away all liberties of workers and brought (them) nothing but exhaustion, death and ruin”.
A heavily researched version offering similar sentiment is to be found in Jurgen Kuczynski, the towering German communist intellectual of the time, whose forty volumes on the conditions of the labour force under industrial capitalism are still a tour de force. 
In “Germany: Economic and Labour Conditions under Fascism” (New York, International Publishers, 1945), he challenged the view that fascism was “organic” -- a necessary phenomenon -- to industrial society, and reached the conclusion that Hitler’s system was “a crude form of robbery” (of workers’ dues), introducing elements of “barbarism” and “a considerable number of characteristics of feudal and slave-owning society”.
In 1933 Hitler bulldozed his way to power, took away all liberties of workers and brought them nothing but exhaustion, death and ruin
For Kuczynski, the “main winner” in the period he addressed was “monopolistic heavy industry”. This is unlikely to be the case in India in our own day, but it seems indubitable that the coercion of the migrant work force -- whose pauperization is glaring -- in emergency conditions imposed by a spreading pandemic, is the most noteworthy feature of the landscape.
Some barred doors had to be suddenly unlocked under perceived public pressure as the government’s callous indifference toward the working class began to be noted. The regime agreed to run special trains to take stranded migrant workers home. However, unlike the case at the start of the pandemic of Indians stuck overseas, whose rescue by air was arranged by the Centre free of charge, someone had to pay for the workers’ train tickets. The bias of the rulers was not hidden.
The offer by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi that her party would pay for the train tickets created a flutter -- and some panic in some political circles. State governments rushed forward to pick up the tab. But the regime at the Centre remained unmoved. A convoluted circular of the Union home ministry has spelled out that the migrant workers, as yet unable to return home, must be held down in the cities as much as possible.
The BJP-run government in Karnataka cancelled schedule workers’ trains but had to reverse that decision under criticism. It is evident that other than the labourers who managed to flee back home on foot, running away from the dreaded disease and from economic misery (and some died on rail tracks, crushed by an incoming goods train), and the much smaller number lucky to find a train ride home, the rest will be coerced into remaining in cities and joining the work force.
The element of compulsion can scarcely be in doubt. The UP government has decided to suspend for three years practically every labour law. This is a kind of fascism, Indian style, being imposed by those who canvas votes in the name of religion and making the country great. In the capitalist framework, the use of force against a class of people to extract obedience is a key definer of fascism.
Now everything seems blindingly clear. When Modi imposed the national lockdown at only four hours’ notice in March, he was criticized for not planning with care. But it turns out he had planned it all too carefully. He had sought to ensure that the informal sector workers, the casual and migrant labourers, do not leave the cities and quietly accept the burden -- practically starve and catch the disease, if they must, because there can be no social distancing in their living spaces. And there would be no alleviating rider that the government would place some money into their bank accounts to kick-start demand.
---
Senior journalist based in Delhi. A version of this article first appeared in “The Asian Age”

Comments

TRENDING

Communal rhetoric? Hindutva preached by RSS-BJP is 'monolithic', not Hinduism

By Prem Verma*  I am a devout Hindu but not a believer of RSS Hindutva form of Hinduism which brings about hatred of other religions. My Hindu religion has not taught me to look down on other religions and neither has it instilled in me to go about converting others to my religion because my religion is superior.

Gross 'injustice' to children: Rs 5000 cr cut in education budget; 15 lakh schools shut down

Counterview Desk  More than 100 dignitaries, including educationists, academia, social activists, teachers’ union, civil society organisations (CSOs), various networks and people working on child rights, in a letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have sought reversal of reduction in allocation for education in the Union Budget 2021-22, even as demanding substantial increase in it.

India sees 62 journo deaths, 4th highest, amidst pandemic: Swiss media rights body

By Our Representative The Switzerland-based media rights body Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has noted that India is the fourth most affected country as far as mediapersons’ death on account of Covid-19 is concerned. According to Blaise Lempen, secretary-general of PEC, the global tally of casualties among media persons in the Covid-19 pandemic has reached 1,036 journalists in 73 countries till date.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

RSS love for 'killer' Myanmar junta behind Indian military presence at Tatmadaw Day?

By Shamsul Islam*  If a shameful act means an action which is criminal and nauseating, it would be an understatement to describe the attitude of the present RSS-BJP rulers of India towards the demolition of democracy and large-scale killing of the people of Myanmar by the military ( tatmadaw ) junta which took power through a coup on February 1, 2021 after renegading the election results in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy, was a clear winner.

Chhattisgarh’s Apra riverfront imitates Sabarmati: 'Devaluing' water, environment

Sabarmati riverfront By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  This year’s #WorldWaterDay (March 22) focus was on ‘Valuing Water’. My school friend, Pragati Tiwari from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, called that day knowing my interest in water matters. We were remembering our childhood days as how we used to play on the banks and the bed of the Arpa Nadi (River) during the summer holidays and as how the river would swell like Anaconda to flow happily during the monsoon.

Bihar massacre on Holi day: Brahminical, casteist mindset behind 'uneasy' silence

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Several people were killed in Bihar amidst Holi festivities, but not much response has come in from the media. The silence of the government and the society as a whole is also appalling. We seek to romanticise these festivals, yet we forget that every year they take so many lives. This despite the fact that Holi appears to be the best time for 'avenging things'.

India's draft migrants policy: Whither concern on job restrictions imposed by states?

By Anil Kumar*  India’s Niti Aayog has prepared a Draft Migration Policy. The draft policy acknowledges migration as an integral part of development, and it calls for positive government interventions that facilitate internal migration. With a rights-based solution to migration, the draft states that the policy should “enhance the agency and capability of the community and thereby remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive”.

Recalling Jallianwala martyrs' communal amity as BJP 'warns' of Sitalkuchi everywhere

By Shamsul Islam*  The RSS-BJP rulers declare India to be a battle-ground between Hinduism and Islam. Muslims have been declared as ‘internal threat’ by RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar (“Bunch of Thought”, Chapter xvi). Behaviour of many of their leading cadres, including those who hold high constitutional posts, is such that they seem to be conspiring over-time to ignite a civil war between the two communities. They are under the impression that this would help divert attention from failures of the Hindutva rulers on developmental front.