Samata Biswas writes about the social distance India maintains from its migrant workers, redrawing the borders that govern our lives.
In Rittwik Ghatak’s 1965 film Subarnarekha (the third and final one in his partition trilogy, after Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar), the moral compass of the narrative, Haraprasad, describes the generation after his. They are those who have not witnessed the atom bomb, the war, the famine, riots and the partition. Born many years after Subarnarekha, people of my age bracket, could, for a long time, think of such a statement to be about us.
Image 1: ‘They haven’t seen the atom bomb’. They haven’t. They haven’t? Never…They haven’t seen the war, haven’t seen the famine, haven’t seen riots and have not witnessed the partition’. Source: Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread), 1965.
This piece that I set out to write, becomes difficult not because the security of such an existence is irrevocably lost to me, but because of the realization that that the borders that the partition narratives of the subcontinent invoke, are much closer than we had ever imagined. While I sit in the relative comfort of home, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers around India, still walk towards their homes—battling a loss of health, of income, the shutting down of state and district borders, inaccessibility of food, stigma, apathy and state violence. The difficulty also stems from knowing that this relative comfort of one’s existence so far has been the result of systemic inequalities, of visible and invisible boundaries that are redrawn every day, but now, more starkly than ever before.
Why partition now? Borders, visible and invisible.
In this interrupted academic semester, I have been teaching Partition Literature, for the first time in my life. We began by looking at Govind Nihalni’s long telefilm, Tamas, and moved on to “Toba Tek Singh”, both the story and the poem, read “Leaf in the Storm” by Lalithambika Antarjanam, reached Subarnarekha by Rittwik Ghatak, and then educational institutions were declared shut, followed a week later by a statewide lockdown, and then nationwide. Teaching Partition Literature was a conscious decision on our part, following the intense debates and agitations surrounding the National register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), but also from encountering diverse popular cultural explorations of the partition in the last year. We visited two Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata, that dealt with memories of the partition and the whimsy of the state machinery. Prafulla Kanan Paschim Adhibasi Brinda is a residents’ organization set at a locality that has grown large with people coming over from east Bengal and later east Pakistan from 1947 till well into the 1990s. In a sprawling field, they had built a giant shelter, filled with mannequins dressed in military attire, fighter planes, replicas of bombs, passports, and barbed wires everywhere. I have only ever seen a border in my life, that between Mexico and the United States, but having taught Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines for several years, I kept on thinking about Thamma’s dilemma. Thamma, with her home in Dhaka and brief married life in Rangoon, moved to Calcutta as a young widow. Throughout the heady years of bringing her son up, the years of nation building and mentoring her grandson, the desire to go back home kept on nagging her. And finally, when in 1964 she could travel to Dhaka, she kept on looking down from the airplane, searching for the big red line, some symbol, some signal, demarcating the boundary that had come to signify her divided existence, where she needed a passport to go home.
Image 1: Barbed wire and passports were present in profusion at Prafulla Kanan, the barbed wires representing the actual, visible boundaries, and the passports, the access to the invisible ones. In this installation, the walls are covered with both passports and barbed wires. Source: Prafulla Kanan Paschim Adhibasi Brinda Durga Puja Pandal, 2019. Photo: Samata.
The theme for Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha’s Durga Puja Pandal was ‘Thikana’ (address). Humanity is represented as shuttle cock, placed and displaced at the will of the state machinery. Image 2 is an old woman, reaching out towards the observer, the well-dressed Puja tourist, in a field of carelessly tossed shuttlecocks.
Image 2: An old woman reaches out to you, barbed wire behind her, in a field littered with shuttle cocks. You look at her, incapable of helping, aware that your borders are unbreachable. Source: Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha Durga Puja pandal, 2019. Photo: Debalina.
But why do I go back to thinking about the partition, when the present is witnessing the single largest movement of people across India, since then? In our class discussions we kept on coming back to thinking about the legacy of partition—the continuation of questions, narratives, issues and concerns that were already mentioned in partition texts, and we continue to grapple with, equally unsuccessfully, me and our students, a decade and a half younger than me. The search for home, the impossibility of finding it, the sectarianism rampant even during tremendous political and human upheaval, the double marginalization of women and Dalits, private accumulation of wealth and profiteering. And the shaky faith in the nation-state. Subarnarekha begins with the establishment of a school in one of the refugee colonies in the city of Calcutta. But when a Bagdi woman from Dhaka seeks shelter there, she is turned away, because only people from Pabna district had settled there. It is as if the border that each of them had crossed and had assumed that they had left behind, had already entered their new nation state, one that they had been hailing a moment ago. It is almost as if the burden of the border cannot be put down.
Image 3: The barbed wire that marked the boundary of what the visitors could see, at Rajdanga Naba uday Sangha Durga Puja Pandal, 2019. Photo: Samata.
Former refugee colonies may still be more porous today, than the present-day gated community—a community that becomes a community by virtue of having a gate. A gate is that boundary which can be maintained on the basis of the requirements of those on the inside. Often, the gates in such housing complexes and the roads they barricade, are public roads, but the existence of the gate makes it private. Outsiders in such an instance come to be closely monitored, but so do some of the insiders—the domestic worker, the cook, the nanny, the security guard who patrols the gate and the driver.
More often than not these domestic workers are internal migrants, having travelled from other parts of the city, of the district, of the state, of the country. The gap between their employers and themselves is not merely economic, but also ideological—one that leaves them perpetually on the outside of the gate. From 15th March onwards, many parts of India, but very prominently Karnataka, Delhi and Maharashtra, witnessed large groups of migrant workers gathering at railway stations, trying to get back home. Restaurants had started to shut by this time, many non-essential services were reducing their workforce, caught between a lack of work and hence income, and no guarantee of a place to stay—they chose to try their luck back at home. This was not in any way different from what the overseas migrants had chosen to do, in which the Central government was a willing participant. India had brought back 75 Indian nationals from Wuhan in China, 263 from Italy and 389 from Iran, by this time.
Image 4: A compilation of two collages collected from social media. In both the photo on top of from 1947, the partition of India, and the one at bottom is of migrant labourers walking home, or looking for transport to take them home. Source: Instagram page of @calcuttacornice and Whatsapp group ‘Sampriti’.
In contrast, the rapid shutting down of passenger trains and interstate buses created a situation that escalated between 15th March to 25th March, and from 26th March onwards newspapers and television channels started showing images of innumerable people, carrying their luggage on their heads, setting out for home. Several social media users were quick to compare these images with those from the partition of India.
The borders that we inhabit and maintain in our everyday life, do not always have to be marked. Caste, religion, age and gender, origin and class are many such invisible yet indispensable boundaries with which we order our lives, boundaries that become more securely drawn in times of an epidemic. Chandra Nath Saha’s impression of such a boundary is below, between the India that waits for the bullet train, and the India that doesn’t have buses to ride on.
Image 5: ‘Make in India. Made in Japan’. The top shows a bullet train that was promised two elections ago, one that will carry affluent passengers between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The bottom is an overcrowded Uttar Pradesh State Transport bus, trying to ferry migrant labourers home from Delhi. Needless to mention the bullet train, if operating, will be forever out of reach of those trying to get on the bus. Artist: Chandra Nath Saha (Tilak). Reproduced with permission.
Another such division I see every day from my balcony. Living in a small block of flats, right in front of a North Calcutta slum, householders like ourselves are extremely adept at finetuning these borders, in ways that they finally become embodied. Most of the domestic workers who come to this block of flats come from the slum in front. They have access to homes, staircases and the common area, but not to the terrace where some of them wanted to hang their clothes to dry. They are encouraged to wash our dishes, mop our houses and clean our clothes with extra vigour, but the bodies that clean these, are considered too unclean to use the bathrooms where they sit and wash clothes. Despite repeated appeals for social isolation, most householders have encouraged their domestic workers to come to work over the last two weeks. But, the day someone was taken to the hospital with fever, the gates of the building shut, and would not be reopened till his test came out as negative for CoVId 19. The worker’s body does not only provide the labour that enables us to enjoy our leisure—it is also marked as a site of pollution, of contagion. Image 6 below, also from Chandra Nath Saha (Tilak) highlights the borders that lies on our bodies. When one set of migrants come home, they are treated with bodily dignity, cursorily scanned and allowed to pass, their privileges intact. For another, even the dignity to remain upright, to resemble the homo sapiens at the end of the evolutionary chain is removed, bodies sprayed with insecticide, coiled tightly, looking away.
Image 6: ‘Make in India. Made by Virus’. Two groups of people inhabit two sides of the divide, the same figure hover over them. Clad in the elusive Personal Protective Equipment, on one hand they spray something on the group sitting huddled, on the other they check the group standing upright, for their temperature. Although resembling a medical professional, standing on a lotus, guarded by an emaciated lion, this figure has all the authority of a ruler or the divine, suitably elevated above their subjects. Artist: Chandra Nath Saha (Tilak). Reproduced with permission.
The integrity and dignity of the human body is central to rights discourses, but also to philosophical understandings of our being in the world. Not surprisingly, in discussions around racism or colonialism we repeatedly come across instances of dehumanizing the target of racism or colonialism. The native is primitive, savage, animal-like, barbarian, the slave’s body is a testimony to their animal-like character, always already less than human. The differently abled is also at the same time not considered capable of living a full life with the usual dignities. It is precisely for this reasons that punitive regimes, prisons, hospitals and asylums work best when able to compromise the integrity of the body. The fruits of the body’s labour is more and more alienated, the lower one goes in the class hierarchy. Therefore, construction worker never have access to the shiny buildings they build, sanitation workers cannot roam about in the malls whose bathrooms they clean, or ride on the airplanes that land in their airports, domestic workers hardly ever eat what they have cooked and the security guard is always the first suspect when there is a theft under their watch.
We were told CoVid 19 is a great equalizer, it can attack everyone, and no one is immune to it—irrespective of class, caste, gender, age, ability, language, religion, region—and other basis that divide humanity into groups. India has probably not yet witnessed the eye of the CoVid 19 storm yet, but what it has witnessed is the coming together of every faultline that divides us as a people. Not for nothing is the biggest weapon to fight this ‘war’ is called social distancing. Because it once again points at the distances that are inherent in our societies, the distances that make life easy for some of us, obscuring the labour that goes into creating that life. As a society we have distanced ourselves from those that have built our cities, those that grow our food and those that deliver them, those that clean our roads and offices and those who care for our elderly, and our children.
What happens when we encounter those whose bodies and dwellings have been open to our gaze all this while? For people who live on pavements and those that live on platforms, the boundaries of their bodies have to constantly negotiate with other bodies, people whose claim upon the spaces their bodies inhabit is more, backed by the police man’s stick. The solution has been to hide them from sight, to put up barriers/ banners/ cloth-covers, as if out of sight will indeed keep the contagion away from those that are socially distant from them. Pavement dwellers are routinely removed during every festival, lest they obstruct the flow of people. During this celebration of distance, one wonders, were they also sanitized when gigantic trucks sprayed disinfectant on the streets where they live?
Image 7: ‘Chhobi 2’. A group of labourers walk on the highway. Their belongings and their children balanced on their heads and their shoulders. Next to the highways is a row of high-rises, socially distant. Artist: Laboni Jangi. Reproduced with permission.
Across the digital divide
A bunch of social media based collectives have been trying to reduce this distance. Caremongers India is one such, that works on the basis of the google form, whatsapp messages and simply by posting a message on their facebook page. Typically people ask for a medicine they have not managed to procure, grocery for elderly parents who live away from their children, a drop to the hospital for an urgent checkup or delivery of home cooked meals, and even a sick pet. The volunteers are usualy upwardly mobile young to middle aged men and women, with their own transporation, resources, and strong networks with the police, hospitals, grocery chains and medical shops. They do this work for free, to help people like themsleves, across most metro cities in india.
Another one, based in Kolkata, but running in tandem with the crowd-sourced website wbtrackmigrants.com, is Gana-todaroki Udyog (Public Monitoring Initiative). Here a group of volunteers coordinate on the basis of information they receive from Bengali migrant workers stuck at different locations in India, at Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh. Telangana and other states. Typically the narratives coming out are of a bunch of men, who have either lost their jobs or have not been paid by their employers, incapable of coming back home, and without a ration card, also incapable of receiving government aid. Political parties and governments across India have been more or less proactive in distributing aid and relief material to established localities, groups of people who have ties to the local communities and are known to the authorities, But small groups of migrant workers, incapable of moving out of their cramped residences and without money, seem to be falling off the the governmental network when monetary help/ food packets are considered. By building networks with civil rights and grass roots organisations, political parties and students’ organisations, this group seems to be co-ordinating extremely well, getting organisations to visit them in person, helping them with money and with groceries. Interestingly, although both these groups often work in the same geographical space, their paths never intersect, neither do the paths of those that they try to help.
Even in the digital commons, we encounter two Indias. One stuck at home, socially isolated, the other, trying to walk towards their homes, but not making it.
Image 8: An installation of a mounted piece of wood, displayed along the walls of a Durga Puja pandal. The words written in red, are in Bengali. They are lines from Sankha Ghosh’s poem “Deshantor”. They translate: ‘And then, without uttering a single word during the entire journey, we continue to walk, we keep on walking, from one country to another’. Three lines of barbed wire are stretched across the frame. The onlooker has to look through the wires to read the lines. Source: Prafulla Kanan Paschim Adhibasi Brinda Durga Puja pandal, 2019. Photo: Samata.
This article was published as part of CRG’s collection Borders of an Epidemic: CoVid 19 and Migrant Workers. The PDF can be downloaded here.
Samata Biswas teaches English at The Sanskrit College and University. She can be reached at email@example.com.