Some images and events will not easily go away from memory. These are of a kind that bring up anger, a sense of a loss of decency in those in whom we placed our trust, institutional failure, and diminishing faith in the state system as it is run at present.
The first imprinted image in this category, established in newspaper photos and television images, is of the poor walking out of our major cities the long march by hundreds of thousands to villages, their emotional home, that are hundreds of kilometres away after prime minister Narendra Modi announced the first national lockdown on March 25.
As lakhs left the cities, thousands thronged the Anand Vihar bus station on the eastern periphery of Delhi, in their innocence believing that they will find inter-state buses to take them home. Instead, they were met with crude state resistance.
The later drama of police lathis being rained on the thousands of the fraternity of the working poor at Mumbai’s Bandra station was also an unforgettable picture. Their fault too was that they wanted to get home quickly. In the times of pandemic, they had no wages, no money left for food or rent in surroundings that had suddenly turned alien.
Throw into this jumble of images a judicial obiter dictum which was as crude as it was galling an unsubtle variant of a police lathicharge. In disposing of a PIL filed on April 1, a three-judge Supreme Court bench asked why it was necessary for migrant workers to receive wages when they were being provided free cooked food.
(For a while the Delhi government, when the clamour for relief rose, said it had distributed 10 lakh meals to stranded workers, but acknowledged that it was hard-pressed.)
Their lordships have evidently missed a trick or two in their officious lives. They have yet to learn to stand for hours in a line for half-cooked khichri and find the treat has run out by the time it’s their turn.
Better still, let them stand in the doorway of five-star hotels to beg for food, savour the delicacies dished out as charity, but be deprived of their money wages. The meaning of justice might then become clearer.
Max Seydewitz, a Social Democratic Party member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) when Hitler, unleashing his Nazi stormtroopers and heavily nationalist propaganda, bulldozed his way to power in 1933, has something to say that fits our present picture somewhat.
In a standout book describing that wretched era, Civil Life in Wartime Germany: The Story of the Home Front (New York, The Viking Press, 1945), published after he had formed the Socialist Workers’ Party, the German politician wrote that the regime “took away all liberties of workers and brought (them) nothing but exhaustion, death and ruin”.
A heavily researched version offering the same sentiment is to be found in Jurgen Kuczynski, the German Communist intellectual of those times, whose 40 volumes on the conditions of the labour force under industrial capitalism are still deemed a tour de force.
In Germany: Economic and Labour Conditions Under Fascism (New York, International Publishers, 1945), he challenged the view that fascism was “organic” a necessary phenomenon to industrial society, and reached the conclusion that Hitler’s system was “a crude form of robbery” (of workers’ dues), introducing elements of “barbarism” and “a considerable number of characteristics of feudal and slave-owning society”.
For Kuczynski, the “main winner” in the period he addressed was “monopolistic heavy industry”. This is unlikely to be the case in our own day, but it seems indubitable that the coercion of the migrant workforce in India whose pauperisation is glaring in emergency conditions imposed by a spreading pandemic, is the most noteworthy feature of our landscape.
Some barred doors had to be suddenly unlocked under perceived public pressure as the government’s callous indifference toward the working class began to be noted. The government later agreed to run special trains to take stranded migrant workers home.
However, unlike the case at the start of the pandemic of Indians stuck overseas, whose rescue by air was arranged by the Centre free of charge, someone had to pay for the workers’ train tickets home.
The bias of the rulers was not hidden.The offer by the Congress president that her party would pay for the train tickets created a flutter and a degree of panic in certain political circles. State governments rushed forward to pick up the tab. But the government at the Centre remained unmoved.
A convoluted circular of the Union home ministry has spelled out that migrant workers, as yet unable to return home, must be held down in the cities as much as possible.
The BJP-run government in Karnataka cancelled scheduled workers’ trains but had to reverse that decision under criticism. It is evident that other than the labourers who managed to flee back home on foot, running away from the dreaded disease and from economic misery (and some died on the rail tracks, crushed by an incoming goods train), and the much smaller number lucky enough to find a train ride home, the rest will be coerced into remaining in the cities and rejoining the workforce.
The element of compulsion can scarcely be in doubt. The Uttar Pradesh government has decided to suspend for three years practically every labour law. This is a kind of fascism, Indian style, being imposed by those who canvass for votes in the name of religion and making the country great. In the capitalist framework, the use of force against a class of people to extract obedience is a key pointer to fascism.
Now everything seems blindingly clear. When Prime Minister had imposed the lockdown at only four hours’ notice, he was criticised for not planning with care. But it turns out that he planned it all too carefully.
He had sought to ensure that the informal sector workers, the casual and migrant labourers, do not leave the cities and quietly accept the burden practically starve and catch the disease, if they must, because there can be no social distancing in their living spaces. And there would be no alleviating rider that the government would place some money into their accounts to kickstart demand.