Madhurilata Basu and Sibaji Pratim Basu undertake a survey of the experiences of migrant healthcare workers and politics of communalisation that constitutes India’s response to the novel Coronavirus.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
We can only surmise the mid-night effects of the Indian Prime Minister’s late evening or mid-night announcements. Remember his famous ‘Mitron’-Speech before the demonetisation on November 8, 2016, or, the launching of GST at the midnight of 30 June/1 July 2017? And now, the announcement on March 24 about the 21-day ‘Lockdown’ to combat COVID-19 which was also to have been effected from the mid-night! Perhaps he is haunted by the memory of the famous Freedom at Midnight speech of Nehru (his bête noire or perhaps ‘alter-ego’) on the eve of independence. Thus, like demonetisation the lock-down was implemented from the midnight of 24-25 March giving little chance to millions of people across this vast country for minimum preparation and to some extent also to the state governments and the health regimes, which are leading the battle against Novel Corona from the front. The government did not appear to be particularly prepared either. And the experiences that the plebeians of this country have passed through during the first week seemed like a nightmare! The virus is wreaking havoc not only on human lives but their very existences.
The Marching Migrant Workers
Take for example, the case of migrant workers. The hasty announcement of the unprecedented lockdown gave hundreds of millions of Indians less than four hours to prepare. The Prime Minister assured Indians that essential services would continue, but was vague regarding how people would be able to buy food and other necessary items. As a result, people rushed to shops to stock up before the decree took effect. People were seen lining up outside stores late into the night and traffic congestion was reported from across the country. In this situation of panic, scarcity and uncertainty, the lockdown has triggered a massive exodus of migrant labourers and wage earners from big cities back to their faraway homes in villages or small towns. Defying curfew/lockdown, the migrant workers (devoid of bare minimum essentials for survival) were seen from Delhi and several states’ capital cities trudging for miles and miles (some even walked up to 900 kilometres) on highways to get back home!
Most of these poor migrants are daily wage workers who are now out of work as businesses and establishments have shut down. In the absence of money and jobs, and bereft of any food, savings, or shelter in large cities, they are desperate to reach their villages. “The staying power of India’s poor is very, very short. People like casual labourers, rickshaw pullers and migrant workers are basically living from hand to mouth at the best of times,” said Jean Dreze, during a telephonic interview with NPR. “Now suddenly overnight they are told that they have to spend 21 days inside their homes? Naturally, many of them are already running out of food”, he further observed.
But with railway and bus services suspended amid the lockdown, there were few options other than simply packing up and trying to walk the vast distance back home. Many are being sent back from the borders by stick-wielding cops for violating social distancing norms amid the lockdown. Many died during this ‘long march’. So far, at least 22 have died. Along the way, going without meals and water, some have faced police brutality, the most recent instance being the police tear gassing and arresting migrant workers in Surat. In Uttar Pradesh, the police sprayed returning workers with bleach, purportedly to disinfect them.
As the humanitarian crisis unfolds, the harrowing plight of migrant workers continues to surface. With the media and civil society raising a hue and cry, buses were finally arranged to take the migrants back to their villages. State governments, meanwhile, are scrambling, often in partnership with local communities, to provide rations and shelter for the now suddenly visible migrants. The mismanagement of the pandemic has also thrown the lid off the desperation that drives the poor to work in the cities. Largely invisible in the census and in national sample surveys — and consequently to administrators — seasonal migrants are a dark and discomfiting reality of urban India. Mostly, they occupy the lowest paying and informal market jobs in key sectors such as construction, hotels, textiles, manufacturing, transportation, services, and domestic work. As most find work as unskilled labourers since they enter the job market at a very early age, they experience no upward mobility and remain stuck in the most unskilled, poorly paid and hazardous jobs for their entire work-life span.
The government’s neglect of the internal migrant population is a travesty, considering welfare and infrastructure programmes have been clearly provided for the urban poor in the 11th and 12thFive-year plans. These include basic amenities like shelter, water, sanitation, toilets, access roads, and infrastructure facilities. However, the benefits are clearly not reaching them. Blame it on bureaucratic apathy, an inefficient outreach, or policymakers’ myopia — or all three. To make matters worse, migration is often enmeshed in ‘nativist’ politics. Internal migration is frequently associated with the rise of anti-migrant politics across India (Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, especially thrive on it), as parties cater to ‘nativist’ sentiments or as new parties emerge to cater to such sentiments.
Image: @churumuri on Twitter.
The role and attitude of the most of the state governments towards the migrant workers are recently revealed by the Interstate Migrant Policy Index 2019 (IMPEX 2019). This index is compiled by India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation that analyses state-level policies for the integration of out-of-state migrants. It has revealed in its report the widespread apathy and discrimination toward migrants by state-level policymakers and unsympathetic policies towards the migrants. “Almost all states are apathetic to the needs of migrants, which stops the latter from accessing jobs, education, welfare entitlements, housing, health benefits and even voting in elections,” states the report. “Often, even if states make provisions for migrants’ access to benefits and support, no measures are put in place to make migrants aware of the relevant schemes and policies or to facilitate this access. Migrants have little or no state-level support and are often made scapegoats by local law enforcement and politicians for any trouble. They are underpaid, underserved and unable to be fully productive.”
Crisis of Caregivers
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness unconscious.” Carl Gustav Jung, ‘The Philosophical Tree’ (1945)
While almost the whole world is battling against Covid 19, it is also battling xenophobia and racism. When the epidemic of yellow fever hit America, European migrants were the ‘other’ and as a result faced stigma. During SARs it was the Chinese, during Ebola it was the Africans and now during Novel Corona, it is once again the Chinese or Asian looking migrants that are facing stigmatization. Within India as well, people with Mongoloid features are facing stigma. Filipino nurses top the list of foreign trained nurses in many of the western developed countries. Shortages and uneven presence of healthcare workers, has resulted in rise in international migration of health workers, with complex patterns of migration. In America for instance, according to a 2016 data, thirty percent of registered nurses were from the Philippines, followed by a six percent from India and a five percent from Nigeria. In case of UK, two top countries of origin were the Philippines and India respectively. Philippines and India together account for almost forty percent of total foreign trained nurses there. Foreign trained nurses are never at an advantageous position and international migration makes their position even more vulnerable, despite some benefiting from forming ties with other foreign trained nurses and developing a network for both personal and professional well being.
However, as stated earlier, with the onset of Novel Corona, our darkest parts have been unmasked. Recently, in a report on the BBC, a Filipino nurse in England reported how she was being shouted at while being on public transportation. She was shouted at and asked to stop the spreading of the virus. In another case, the parents at the Royal Children’s Hospital had refused to let doctors and nurses with Asian features, treat their children. Other reports had surfaced from Germany where patients had objected to wait in the lobby in the presence of other Asian patients.
Within India, nurses in Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai and several other parts, had revealed the dark side of humankind when derogatory remarks were passed at nurses from India’s northeast, or nurses were asked to vacate the apartments they rented in the cities they worked. Xenophobia, racial profiling and stigmatization of healthcare workers are instances of a sad, perhaps cruel, reality in the present time. As if this wasn’t enough, another criminal act of which the government is responsible is putting the healthcare workers at further risk. Nurses and even doctors have complained about the paucity of personal protection equipment, organizations that were given responsibility to make safety gears feared acute shortage of working capital due to the announcement of lockdown. In such a situation the Ministry of Textiles wrote to Ministry of Finance, to look into the aspect of capital crunch for the eleven manufacturers responsible for making safety gears. There was thus an avoidable delay in placing the orders for the safety gears. India continues to spend around five times more on defence than on health. In 2017-18 it was 5.3 times more, in 2018-19- it was 5.17 times more and in 2019-2020 it is 4.7 times more.
It might seem that for a country like India to survive, we need a perpetual presence of fear of another, to hold us together. Geopolitically it is, most of the times, Pakistan, or China; community-wise, it is the Muslims. Even now, in trying times like this, we need the fear of the ‘other’ – the ‘carriers’ of virus. Sometimes they are migrant workers, or, the domestic workforce, working in big cities, who are feared to be dirty and hence carriers of a virus! Although, the fact is just the opposite: the corona virus was spread throughout the world by the rich jet flying classes. Likewise, even the health-workers working in adversarial conditions may be seen with suspicion, especially, if the caregiver is from India’s northeast and bear some ‘Mongoloid’ physical features. In Kolkata, some of them were harassed as ‘Chinese’ and the ‘originator’ and ‘carrier’ of Covid-19! The following lines of Ashis Nandy may help us understand the core of the situation: “If the past does not bind social consciousness and the future begins here, the present is the ‘historical’ moment, the permanent yet shifting point of crisis and the time for choice”.
Corona and a Community: The Incident of Nizamuddin
When the unbearable spectacle of millions of migrant workers were earning critical attention of the media (including the all pervasive ‘social’ one) in India and beyond – a different picture from Nizamuddin West of South Delhi shocked us and diverted our attention from the tragic issue of the migrant workers.
It all began in early March as Coronavirus cases kept surging in India and the world over. About 2,500 people belonging to several nationalities had attended prayer gatherings organised by the Tablighi Jamaat – a global Islamic evangelical movement of Indian origin that started in 1927( ? ) from Mewat near Gurugram – at a six-storey building in South Delhi’s Nizamuddin West area. The Markaz is a transit point for the India-bound Islamic missionaries and it is from here that they set out in groups to other states where they stay in local mosques as a norm. Although the faithful keep assembling at the Nizamuddin venue throughout the year, in the month of March, there was a surge in the number of visitors from within the country and abroad. According to available reports, it was a scheduled congregation at the Markaz or International Headquarters of the Jamaat between March 8 and 13. By March 10 the people started gathering.
Among the participants, foreign nationals from Indonesia, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arab, China, Ukraine, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh were present. “After the lockdown, many of them left the place but around 1,600 were stranded inside the building including 200 foreign nationals,” said a Delhi police official. As a result, the Markaz has become what many call a ‘Super-Spreader’, leaving a trail of infection and death from Kashmir to the Andamans. At least 10 people present at the Markaz anytime in the first two weeks of March have succumbed to the disease. According to latest reports, more than a 100 attendees, including 50 in Tamil Nadu, 24 in Delhi, 18 in Kashmir, 15 in Telangana and nine in Andaman and Nicobar had tested positive for the disease.
And within hours, the blame game started. Many feel that timely action by the Delhi Police, Delhi government and the Centre could have prevented thousands of preachers from spreading Coronavirus in the country. The Ministry of Home Affairs, on March 21, informed the state governments about 824 foreign nationals who visited the Markaz and then travelled to other states, but the Delhi Government and Delhi Police reportedly made no effort to stop the entry of any person or to vacate the premises. Denying the charge of ‘negligence’, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi CM, termed the gathering as “criminal negligence”. However, the Markaz authorities claimed that they had informed the Delhi Police and Delhi government about the details of people staying inside their premises. In a statement the Markaz held: “On March 21, a large group of visitors who had to depart by railways got stuck at the Markaz.” Thus the Markaz spokespersons argued that its members were trapped because of the lockdown.
There is little doubt that such an incident leading to dangerous outcome should not at all have taken place, especially when the Corona pandemic was claiming lives by the thousands in different parts of the world. Yet, the manner in which it was cynically exploited to stoke naked communalism, on social media and TV channels, had a singular aim: to give a communal colour to the fight against corona virus. ‘Coronajihad’ was one of the top trending topics on Twitter. BJP leaders such as Gautam Gambhir, B.L. Santhosh and Sambit Patra fuelled the denunciation parade, warning of a “disaster of gigantic proportions” from the “criminal negligence”. Through his opening “monologue”, Arnab Goswami on Republic TV sought to frame the event as a Muslim conspiracy to defeat India. Later, this line was mirrored by most English and Hindi news channels. However, as always, the followers of this line turned a blind eye on the other religious gatherings in the country in the time of corona. For instance, even the Tirupati temple was open to tens of thousands of devotees at the time of the Tablighi congregation, but the irresponsibility of certain Muslims has been painted with menacing ideological motivations. Again, on the 24th March (the Day 1 of lockdown), defying the lockdown on the very first day, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, attended a Ram Navami event in Ayodhya. He even tweeted photographs of the event, saying the first stage of the “grand Ram Temple” had been accomplished.
Although it is a paradox that the coronavirus provided the perfect opportunity to cleanse the vitiated atmosphere of Indian politics affected by narrow nationalism over the last six years, it seems that we are back to square one. Before the Nizamuddin incident came to the light and was subjected to blatantly communal publicity, the spread of corona provided an opening for collective healing of partisan wounds. Momentarily, the seemingly existential issues of the past — the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Kashmir, JNU violence, Delhi riots, the migrants’ existential plight, the supply of essential supplies to the poor — had been swept back to the recesses of public consciousness. Everyone was facing a common enemy: the virus. But the showcasing of the Nizamuddin incident in a communal way might have two implications for future: like the Jews during the Bubonic Plague in Europe (1348-1351), the Muslims may be made ‘scapegoats’ for spreading the virus. Second, they may be further excluded from the Indian nationhood itself.
A Populist Leader in the time of Corona
As we pass through the crippling lockdown time, it becomes clear to us that more than the central government and its agencies, the state governments are the frontier colonels deputed on the battle-line against the pandemic. And among the Chief Ministers of Indian states, Mamata Banerjee is waging a battle as never before in West Bengal.
Known as a street-fighter, Banerjee has come a long way: from a firebrand students’ and youth leader to the mass leader of popular protest movements, and now the Chief Minister. During her nine years’ rule she has tried to combine the traits of populist politics and policies with the formal administrative structure and processes. For this, she received accolades from the urban and rural masses (mostly from the marginalised and semi-middle classes) and wraths from the elite and educated bhadrlok community, to use J. Broomfield’s celebrated term. However, her tireless efforts to combat corona in the state has brought out a new side of the populist leader.
Banerjee has a reputation of being a mercurial and often short-tempered person. But following the novel coronavirus outbreak people are seeing a different side of her. “From being a firebrand politician, she has rapidly transformed herself into an able administrator with a humane touch”, writes Deccan Herald. Her restrained yet affirmative address to the people and the media about the outbreak has been lauded even by the Opposition parties. Banerjee conducted surprise visits to hospitals treating novel coronavirus patients and quarantine centres in Kolkata.
The Chief Minister who is known for her outspoken criticism of political rivals has carefully avoided any such criticism following the outbreak. During a recent all-party meeting about the novel coronavirus outbreak, her cordial gestures to the Opposition leaders were appreciated by them. Second, from the beginning of the outbreak, she has urged time and again that the state governments should take care of the migrant workers settled in different states within the country, and that they should not be pushed back to their places of origin in the days of the pandemics. Third, she has arranged free rations for the poorer sections of the state for the next few months. Fourth, since the disease has a record of transmission through travels, she demanded cancellation of flights from the very beginning. Finally, although she is firm on the implementation of lockdown, she also saw that it should not turn into a ‘ruthless’ process. However, with little money and men in hand, and with the mounting pressure of the popular expectations that ‘Didi’ (the elder sister as she is popularly called) will solve every problem during the crisis, one needs to see how she manages to pass through the ordeal.
Where to after corona? Are we moving towards a post-political phase after this? It seems we have already stepped in it. By obeying every order of the state without a question in the name of an all-out “war against the enemy”, by subjugating ourselves to the disciplining mechanism, we chose to forget how even in the time of the pandemics, 22 Congress Members of Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh were flown to Bangaluru and kept almost as hostages behind closed doors at a resort to topple the government. Are we not juveniles and out of our minds, when we clap or beat the steel plates “to pay our respect to doctors” in the evening, or light lamps at night to show “solidarity with fellow countrymen” as ordered.
Something similar has been recently expressed by Giorgio Agamben in a different context: “There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective… [O]ne will seek to continue even after the health emergency, experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact — every contagion — between human beings.”
This essay was published in CRG’s volume Borders of an Epidemic: CoVid 19 and Migrant Worker. The volume can be downloaded here.
Madhurilata basu teaches Political Science at Sarojini Naidu College for Women, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sibaji Pratim Basu is a Professor of Political Science at Vidyasagar University, and can be reached at email@example.com.
The cover image is by Bhuvan Bagga/ AFP, via Getty Images. It shows migrant workers outside New Delhi Bus Terminal.
Notes and references:
Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, Vintage Books, London, 2005
As Quoted by Neeta Lal, ‘Covid-19 and India’s Nowhere People’, inThe Diplomat, 1 April 2020
https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/covid-19-and-indias-nowhere-people/ Last accessed on 02/04/20
 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, Oxford, Delhi, 2009, p 62.
 Asim Ali, ‘Coronavirus was a test of secular nationalism. Then Tablighi Jamaat became the scapegoat’, in The Print, 03/04/20 https://theprint.in/opinion/coronavirus-test-of-secular-nationalism-tablighi-jamaat-became-scapegoat/392764/Last accessed on 03/04/20
 Sammuel K Cohn Jr., ‘The Black Death and the Burning of Jews’, Past & Present, Oxford University Press, No. 196, August 2007. As the plague swept across Europe in the mid-14th century, nearly half the population of the minority Jew community were wiped out mostly by lynching and burning alive throughout Europe.
Soumya Das, ‘How coronavirus outbreak transformed West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’, Deccan Herald, 25 March, 20 https://www.deccanherald.com/national/east-and-northeast/how-coronavirus-outbreak-transformed-west-bengal-cm-mamata-banerjee-817560.htmlLast accessed on 02/04/20
Giorgio Agamben: “Clarifications”, 17 March 2020https://itself.blog/2020/03/17/giorgio-agamben-clarifications/?fbclid=IwAR2PC4fbiKzNAFE-OkJSORSXFC9hs5Vuj1YBvJJyTva6_X2HzgjSFaTGoOU Last accessed on 03/04/20