‘Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers’ Book Discussion: Ranabir Samaddar, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Douglas Hill

Sukanya Bhattacharya reports on a discussion around Borders of an Epidemic: Covid 19 and the Migrant Workers, organised by New Zealand India Research Institute, on 24th June, 2020.

Prof. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay started the discussion by bringing into forefront the sudden visibility of the migrant labourers during the pandemic. Even though migration had been happening since industrialization, these workers were the “hidden citizens”. However, due to the pandemic and the haunting images one saw of these workers walking back to their homes every day, there is a new awareness about them and the fact that laws are nearly not strong enough to protect them properly.

The editor of the book Prof. Ranabir Samaddar provided the context of the book. For him, the book was a response of scholars to something that exploded within a week. The ethos and conscience of social scientists saw the consequences of the pandemic especially on the migrant labourers as a challenge of addressing contemporary history while it was happening. Not just from a historical perspective but the book also takes an International Relations approach while defining what the “outside” is – in this case, a pathogen which is a danger or menace from an external source. Here Prof. Samaddar borrows the concept of the power of externalizing the disease (as was in the case of Leprosy and lepers previously) from Foucault. What then becomes important is the art of internalizing, disciplining, regulating and controlling the “danger” from outside. He pointed out that if one looks at the history of migration, the current situation would be what Althusser called a “moment of break”. What is happening cannot be explained in terms which one has already encountered in the discipline of social sciences – it is an epistemic, cataclysmic change. In a Derridean sense, there can be no return or re-turn from where the country and the migrant labourers stand today. Prof. Samaddar ended his discussion by noting that health must be an important factor in historical and sociological consciousness.

Prof. Douglas Hill commented on the notion of “ordering” different kinds of publics. The fact that migrants crossed the border between visible and invisible could be understood with the help of sedentary ontology. Recentering the literature around the mobility in terms of race, caste, class and gender would benefit in the understanding of the logistical organization of society along with getting a clearer look at the intersection of state and central governments. Prof. Hill also brought out the absence of the voices from trade union and workers’ cooperatives and the lack of solidarity between the workers. The neoliberal mode of governance was also questioned by Prof. Hill.

The discussion ended with some questions which asked whether the migrant labourers are externalized and permanently “otherized” in India. The discussion concluded with an examination on the nature of non-institutional solidarity.

Sukanya Bhattacharya is a third year undergraduate student at Presidency University and an intern at Refugee Watch Online. She can be reached at sukanya.mimi28@gmail.com.

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