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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”

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