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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 34, New Delhi, August 8, 2020

And So, They Began To Walk Again | Anshu Saluja

Friday 7 August 2020

by Anshu Saluja

Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, millions of people were forced to march across newly created state borders. Disoriented and dispossessed, they had to move for reasons that were not of their own making, but the effects of which were to rewrite their lives and lifeworlds. Many scholars have captured the traumatic processes of tearing apart of homes and settlements, severing of ties, snapping of relationships, and the resulting social rupture, produced by the tragedy of Partition. This is how Ravinder Kaur describes the moment: ‘The largest-ever mass migration in human history then began. Everybody was looking for a safe refuge for his or her person, family and belongings ... The migration continued despite the appeals of political leaders to stay put’ (Ravinder Kaur, The Last Journey, Economic and Political Weekly, June 2006). For the most part, the migrating millions were clueless about what lay ahead, for in one stroke, they had been rendered stateless and rootless.

In the present circumstances, can we not contend that multitudes of migrant workers, who were often forced in the preceding months to traverse hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres on foot in order to reach their faraway homes, are feeling similarly rootless? Granted that unlike many of the Partition’s victims, they had homes to go back to, even though remote and distant, and a burning hope to return that steadily egged them on, but were they not equally uncertain about what the future entailed?

Trying Realities, Fraught Recourse

Amidst the raging COVID crisis, some of the most disconcerting visuals, that came through, were of migrant workers, embarking on long and arduous homeward journeys. Lakhs of them felt impelled to take to the streets to march on foot to their far-flung villages from the sprawling cities which they had maintained and serviced through their hard labour. When sweeping lockdown measures were suddenly announced in late March 2020 to deal with the spread of the COVID pandemic, bulk of economic activity across the country came to a grinding hault. As an obvious fallout of this, millions were left bereft of any means of sustenance. Those who roll the wheels of our expansive informal economy, including street vendors, construction labourers, factory hands and other sundry service providers, soon found themselves in an extremely precarious situation, with their limited earnings drying up. Savings, if there were any, rapidly evaporated, leaving them stranded and worsening their plight even further. Expectedly, they began to feel helplessly stuck in far-off places to which they had initially migrated in search of a better life to loosen, if not break away from, the shackles of poverty, pinning them down in their village homes.

Vague symbolic solidarities—forged over a cacophony of taali and thaali, and a spectacle of glowing lamps and candles—failed to dispel the debilitating darkness. These seemed mere fleeting charades, in the face of the unfolding crisis, devoid of any real substance. Empty words and displays naturally failed to substitute for a concerted contingency response that remained decidedly wanting. Feigned pronouncements and promises, when not matched by prompt concrete actions on the ground, proved insufficient. Even the Prime Minister’s call to turn ‘nirasha’/despair into ‘asha’/hope (address delivered on 3 April 2020) rang hollow for the most part. Amidst this visible abdication of responsibility and the resulting vacuum, prospects of rapid renewal seemed to grow fainter for distraught workers, staring at imminent hunger and destitution.

Returning home was a fraught exercise, given the unavailability, and later scarcity, of means of transportation, a sorry lack of coordination between different governments, rampant police brutality, discernible administrative apathy and a real danger of contracting the infection. But, their desperate predicament left them with no option and drove them to desperate means. Individuals rode on bicycles for several hundred kilometres for reaching their village abodes. Likewise, families, often with small children and a handful of belongings, either dragged their weary feet to continue the long homeward trek or were forced to travel for days in inhuman conditions, stuffed in trucks and loading autos. On roads and highways in large parts of the country, these became common sights, while the prescription to practise physical distancing, expressly ill-suited for highly populated and unequal regions like our’s, lay by the wayside. The hardships that these trudging multitudes endured, their acute helplessness, the unrelenting battle with hunger and in many cases violent deaths constituted the exceedingly high price that was exacted on them.

In the face of this unprecedented crisis, the state response—whether by way of provisioning food supplies, arranging means of transportation or paying heed to the miserable plight of the urban poor—faltered, lacked urgency and evinced costly delays. In sum, it has been found to be inconsistent and grossly inadequate. This glaring gap, this pervasive want of prompt and corrective contingency measures has served to push the streaming hordes back, to be trapped yet again in the clutches of the same abject poverty from which they had sought to escape in the first place through migration to larger urban centres.

Looking on in Silence

To draw from the Partition experience again, the numbers that were displaced then and forced to relocate to a new land are still debated. Perhaps, the current statistics, relating to the movement of workers, will also be discussed, disputed and revised for long. Eventually, it will be left to economists, sociologists and scholars from a range of other fields to make sense of various dimensions and implications of this large-scale recent repatriation. For now though, we look on, as an avowedly strong-willed regime, with its redeeming leader, step away from and jettison their pressing responsibilities. We continue to keep a silent vigil, as many of our cherished, if already weakened, state institutions servilely acquiesce in this ongoing process. Does this silence hold true to the promise of a just, equal and libertarian Republic that we had set out to build over 70 years ago?

(The author recently completed Ph.D from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)

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