Looking Back to The Postcolonial Age of Migration

Ranabir Samaddar reflects on his recently published volume The Postcolonial Age of Migration and what he hadn’t yet written on.

I wrote The Postcolonial Age of Migration in 2016-2019. It came out only two months ago (Routledge, 2020) as the pandemic raged in India and elsewhere in most parts of the world. Global mobility came to a screeching halt, as mobility within India, so much so that parcels and other postal services stopped from end-March and have barely resumed. I have not as yet seen the book in print and I am sure that not many interested people abroad have seen it and procured copies. Locked down in my house for the past few months and aware of the fact that the book had come out, I was almost driven to reflect on what I had written: Did I do justice to our age, which I described as the postcolonial age of migration?

While writing the book I was aware of the importance of historical sensitivity in making sense of our postcolonial age. The book therefore time and again goes back to colonial histories of war, plunder, changes in land use pattern, peasant dispossession, primitive accumulation, and their continuities in our time. This is the backdrop in which the book discusses how these colonial practices of violence and the border making exercises are being reproduced today on a global scale. Wars, famines, and ecological changes account in a big way in the migrations and forced migration flows of our time. They also influence patterns of labour mobility. This is also the context of the emergence of modern humanitarianism with its specific doctrine of protection. The imprints of the colonial roots of modern humanitarianism and protection are analysed in this book.

Yet as I reflected on the absent book I became quickly aware that the book has one significant gap. The overwhelming reality of the pandemic of Covid-19 brought home the realisation that the book does not take into account the epidemiological disasters as integral part of the colonial history of migration and the postcolonial age of migration. The absence of any concern for the migrant workers and refugees in the structure of public health should have been noted. The book discusses camps, speaks of health concerns of the refugees in camps. Yet, the larger perspective of public health is absent.

India’s history of epidemics offers insights into the country’s poor public health infrastructure. The history of the 1897 plague in colonial Bombay is well-known and the present situation of Covid-19 has evoked comparisons with the plague in India in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Thousands fled the city, spreading the disease in the process. Public health infrastructure was zero. Residents locked themselves up in their houses in fear of plague-control officers who could pick any one up, quarantine, and separate children from their families. In the next twenty years about 10 million people died of the disease in the country. Plague was accompanied by other infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza. Malaria killed millions through the years, and an estimated 5 per cent of the country’s population perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. As one commentator has put it, yet of all these diseases it was the bubonic plague which was declared as crisis. “Then, as now, only one out of a handful of deadly afflictions, the one that most directly threatened commerce, trade, and the accumulation of capital—was identified as a crisis”. The plague became the Bombay government’s priority for the next two decades. As capital and labour began fleeing the city in the wake of the disease, the government implemented massive efforts to bring them back in. We are probably witnessing today something like what happened in the past.

Indeed, the countrywide lockdown remind us of the earlier eras. The country has now witnessed masses of migrants returning home on foot, a growing crisis of hunger, stockyards and storages overflowing with millions of tons of food surplus, and arbitrary powers to be exercised across the country. This is a call back to the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. In the outbreak of the plague epidemic the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) came to a halt. Thousands of workers (according to some estimate 300,000) left the city. This only sharpened the crisis further. The Bombay Improvement Trust was formed to give back to the city its “reputation” of cleanliness. Yet in those efforts, the policy focus was on making the city “clean” rather than setting up and improving public health infrastructure. Cleaning the city was a “public” purpose; ensuring health of the people was not so much a “pubic” priority. We still do not know, as we did not know in 1896-98, if the draconian measures like the sudden and total lockdown can stop or control contagion. The countrywide lockdown for the last few months did not improve dramatically the public health infrastructure. Basically we have waited for this round of epidemic to pass and have attempted to reduce the scope of contagion, while we are ready to tolerate a “minimum number of deaths” (including collateral deaths such as of migrants on the roads or rail tracks). Social Darwinism matches perfectly the economic policies that are to follow the pandemic.

Disease does not act alone. It acts in unison with a policy of eroding public health infrastructure. Pushing the migrant workers to the fence and robbing them of access to public distribution of food, public health provisions, and employment in public works to tide over the crisis of epidemic became willingly or unwillingly a part of disease control measure. In many ways independent India has followed the colonial approach, though the nationalist government in its first flush of enthusiasm had given importance to eradication of malaria, triple vaccine, small pox eradication, etc.

Migrant in this context appears like a virus. Like the virus, it spreads the disease. The migrant’s body is suspect. Like the virus the migrant in country after country symbolises the enemy from outside. We are accustomed to the idea that our civilisation is at war with a new kind of enemy, one which comes from outside. Like a parasite it breeds in the most vulnerable areas of human life, waiting for the moment to release a pathological violence upon its otherwise oblivious prey.

The eerie similarity between the social image of a virus and that of the migrant struck me as I reflected more and more on the book. Of course the book deals with the image of the “outsider”, an “alien” as it discusses in various chapters the figure of the migrant and the refugee. The public health crisis also tells us how the migrant is considered as a virus – an enemy not of public health, but of life, which therefore requires and legitimises all kinds of governmental prohibitions and restrictions in various countries on refugees and migrants.

The political society for long held the belief that the viruses and migrant workers – both belonged to the outside. Otherwise the insularity of the society was assured. The outbreak of the epidemic and the sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of migrant workers on the roads trying to escape the trap of lockdown signalled the end of the mythical safety of a society of settled population groups and of the state that guards this insularity. The range of policy problems and debacles in coping with the pandemic arise from the ignorance of the phenomenon of mobility – of pathogens and workers. Indeed the idea that the threat is from outside not only makes a law and order centric approach to cope with the epidemic possible, it also explains how the “migrant crisis” and the “public health crisis” met together in our time and exacerbated the feeling of all round doom.

Perhaps one reason behind the neglect of the impact of epidemiological crisis on mobility is that the book by and large leaves out what is conventionally called internal migration. I was aware of the linkages between internal labour mobility along with internal displacements and global flows of refugees and migrants. I had worked earlier on the so-called internal question. Yet my blindness to the issue of public health and its stratified nature led me to ignoring the interrelations between mobility and public health. As if the refugees and migrants do not belong to the public.

Yet there is no doubt that any account of the postcolonial imprints on the current age of migration will be incomplete without an examination of the interrelated notions of the public, public health, and refugee and migration flows. In the cacophony around ecology and climate change we forgot the other great question of life – namely, public health.

Ranabir Samaddar is the Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies at Calcutta Research Group. He can be reached at ranabir@mcrg.ac.in

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