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Migrant Labour and the Politics of Language

Essential before the Pandemic

As thousands of migrant labourers struggle to return to their homes, government officials have sought to keep them in place with promises of safety and support, and through brute force. Beyond containing the spread of the virus, preventing migrants from returning is based on the need to maintain the availability of labour for the economy once it reopens. Using the example of the upcoming harvest and planting season in Punjab, both the demand and disregard for the category “labourer” through the politics of identity, capitalism and colonial rule is traced. What this pandemic reveals, therefore, is not only the importance of the hitherto unimportant, but the ideology embedded within the language of everyday life.

Across India vast numbers of mig­rants are struggling to return to their homes amid the government-imposed lockdown due to the ­Covid-19 pandemic. With bus and rail services suspended, and restrictions on private vehicles, tens of thousands have taken to making the journey by foot, gathering their movable belongings to walk hundreds of kilometers in small and large groups, a phenomenon reminiscent of the beleaguered kafilas that criss-crossed the subcontinent in 1947. Their reason for returning is stark. The closure of the economy—primarily agriculture, manufacturing, construction and domestic service—means these people are unable to work, and therefore cannot earn enough money to feed themselves. Despite going back to the same poverty that compelled them to leave in the first place, they reckon a ­better chance of survival among the ­familiar surroundings and familial networks of their original localities.

At the same time, the Prime Minister and various chief ministers have tried to halt this movement, ostensibly for fear of further spreading the virus. Whatever the situation in the cities, most of rural India has far fewer healthcare professionals and less adequate infrastructure to cope with a serious outbreak. Officials have therefore made appeals for migrants to remain in place. “Stay wherever you are,” pleaded Arvind Kejriwal on 29 March, or else “the coronavirus will reach your villages and families through you and it will then spread across the country” (NDTV 2020; Times of India 2020). Governments have offered assurances of screening and testing, and pledged material support. Often religious groups and local charities have stepped in to distribute rations to those who have depleted their meagre savings and are on the verge of starvation (Paul 2020). Meanwhile, police and paramilitary forces have been deployed across the country to turn back convoys through arrests, beatings and cordons. Vivid digital and print media reports of immense suffering have become ubiquitous.

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