“Were We Not Promised To Be Free?”

“Were We Not Promised To Be Free?”

The pandemic has revealed how the rapid urbanization fueling India’s economic ascent is rooted in migrant labor.

Migrant workers in Patna, India, arrive at a train station on May 28, 2020. (Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay
by Sheetal Chhabria
University of Washington Press, 2019, 256 pp.

The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914–1921
by Radhika Singha
Oxford University Press, 2020, 256 pp.

Last May, a five-minute BBC Hindi video went viral in India. In the clip, the journalist Salman Ravi interviews a group of migrant workers walking back to their home villages during the Indian government’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Fighting back tears, one of the men recalls being beaten by police along the route. His two young children, groggy from hunger and the heat, sit on a broken bicycle attached to a cart that holds the family’s possessions. When another man, barely in his twenties and holding a sleeping toddler, admits that he is barefoot because his sandals had broken, Ravi gives him the sneakers off his feet.

The journey from Ambala in Haryana, where the migrants in the video set out, to their home villages in Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh, is over 460 miles—roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston. It takes approximately two weeks to cover on foot. Without food, water, or adequate footwear, it would take much longer.

Images of migrant workers trekking home defined India’s coronavirus response. The government instated the lockdown order on March 24 with only four hours’ notice. To avoid starvation in the cities, hundreds of thousands of migrants packed up and left. Railways were closed, so their only option was to walk in the punishing heat, carrying children and their possessions, their blue surgical masks often the only new item of clothing they wore. While repatriation flights were chartered for migrants abroad, including some of the 8.5 million Indian workers in the Persian Gulf, it took more than a month to set up special rail services for domestic migrant workers, and many were charged full-price fares—a cruel joke to those who had already exhausted their savings to survive. When the villagers reached home, they faced harassment as potential carriers of disease as well as a stagnant rural economy, with the promise of relief work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act curtailed by the lockdown.

Two days after the lockdown began, the Modi government introduced a $22.6 billion relief package to provide food, cash, and cooking gas to low-income Indians. The stimulus plan was designed to supplement by 50 percent the existing food grain rations handed out under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Meanwhile, the Food Corporation of India’s excess grain stocks continued to grow, reaching 87.8 million metric tons by May 2020, almost four times the required level of reserves. The Food Corporation is subsidized by the central government; because this subsidy only appears in the budget once the stocks are released, the government keeps the grain in storage to avoid running a fiscal deficit. As a result of this budgeting quirk, more grain spoiled in the four months from January to May 2020 than was distributed in April and May through the government’s COVID-19 relief package. India’s system of welfare provisioning fell short at a moment of acute need, leaving the country’s estimated 100 million migrant workers particularly exposed.

Much of the PDS grain stocks are produced by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. During the Green Revolution in the 1960s, the development of high-yield rice and wheat varietals made these two northern states India’s most productive agricultural region. Thanks to government subsidies established in 1933, farmers are able to sell their crops at a fixed price, shielding them from declining wages and prices caused in part by stagnating yields. Last September a new set of laws were passed that effectively dismantle this subsidy system, leaving crop prices vulnerable to the open market. In response, another type of migration has become visible: a quarter-million farmers from rural Punjab and Haryana have flocked to Delhi, setting up protest camps that have now been in place for months.

The pandemic has revealed how the rapid urbanization fueling India’s economic ascent is rooted in migrant labor. At the same time, the Indian state’s failure to deal with the crisis effectively has created new openings for popular protest rooted in the post-independence commitment to welfare and earlier legacies of anti-colonial resistance. Two recent books provide historical insight into the relationship between crises and state control over migrants. In Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay, Sheetal Chhabria argues that urbanization in late colonial India relied on a series of exclusions that elided the role of migrant labor in the production of the colonial city. Radhika Singha’s The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914–1921 looks back to the early twentieth century to show how vulnerable wartime workers mobilized to demand their share of benefits. Taken together, these books make a case for the centrality of mobile labor in India—and reveal the upheavals of 2020 as the latest chapter in a long history of struggle.

In the late nineteenth century, colonial authorities erected a blockade on the Sion Causeway, a major road linking Bombay and the suburb of Salsette. Police patrolled the entrance, controlling the flows of migrants who sought refuge from the ever-present threat of famine in the city’s hinterlands. On a single day in 1877, 546 men, women, and children, many emaciated, arrived at the blockade; only twelve were deemed healthy enough to work and allowed into Bombay.

Migrants who did find a place in the city were pushed to its fringes, where they packed into one-room shanties and crowded tenements. In Making the Modern Slum, Chhabria shows how from the 1860s onward, colonial authorities brought about the conceptual transformation of shelter into housing—an administrative shift that allowed them to distinguish between desirable and undesirable populations by consigning non-economic forms of shelter, which didn’t produce tax or rent income, to the category of the slum. This transformation coincided with the need to extract greater revenues from housing; the “house tax” represented a significant source of municipal income.

In moments of crisis, colonial authorities imposed greater control over slum dwellers, deemed the “floating population.” In 1896 a plague outbreak in Bombay prompted 200,000 workers to flee the city, evading surveillance measures that included quarantines, home inspections, and forced hospitalization. Those who stayed resisted, rioting and damaging ambulances and hospitals; in response, colonial authorities isolated populations by reinforcing caste and religious sanctions. Muslim pilgrims making the hajj were singled out as carrying contagion, and their movements were limited—an instance echoed in the spring of 2020, when publicity around COVID-19 cases traced to a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat missionary group in Delhi provoked violence against Muslims. Other populations, deemed essential workers, were forbidden from leaving the city. The Halalkhors, a hereditary caste of manual scavengers responsible for city sanitation, were forced to remain in Bombay in the name of public health. As the municipal commissioner’s report put it, without this prohibition, “the people, including all the scavengers, halalkhores, and drivers of the Health Department would have surged out of the city in a panic-stricken mass, uncontrollable in their frenzy and flight, carrying pestilence to the towns and villages around Bombay. Bombay would have been ruined. . . .”

Like today’s essential workers, the halalkhors were called to sacrifice themselves to keep the city running smoothly. Making the Modern Slum is a searing reminder of the long history of urban dependence on migrant labor in India.

The riots that occurred in response to the Bombay plague left a lasting impression on colonial authorities. In 1917, as Singha describes in The Coolie’s Great War, British officials rejected a strategy of large-scale impressment to supply Indian labor for the war effort in Mesopotamia, citing popular resistance to disease control measures in 1896. “We know what dangerous consequences attend any form of compulsion towards the person in this country,” wrote Deputy Home Secretary S.R. Hignell, who had served in Bombay in 1897 and 1898, “even if it be undertaken in the interests of the person himself.” As a result, the colonial war machine balanced discipline with inducements, seeking to create a willing labor force.

In 2020, commentators drew historical parallels between the COVID-19 response and war economies, citing the mobilization of resources, the creation of new supply chains, and the rhetoric of shared sacrifice. The Coolie’s Great War demonstrates how the crisis resembles a war economy in yet another way: the dispatch of marginalized workers to the “front lines.” Singha draws attention to a forgotten subset of labor that powered the battlefields of the First World War, providing an important corrective to accounts that foreground the heroic figure of the Indian soldier.

From 1914 to 1921, nearly half a million Indian noncombatants, or “followers,” worked overseas in Mesopotamia, France, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, Aden, and Gallipoli and Salonika. They built roads and canals, herded animals, and tended to soldiers. They served in the medical, transport, and ordnance departments, as well as in lower-status roles as followers attached to particular regiments, in something resembling domestic service. On occasion, children and even women slipped into the follower ranks. Walter Lawrence, commissioner for the care of Indian soldiers in Europe, remarked on the presence of a ten-year-old bellows-blower at Marseille, as well as two twelve-year-old syces (grooms) in the military hospital at Brockenhurst in England.

British officials sought to distinguish followers from the martial castes who made up the combatant ranks of the Indian Army, both by levels of benefits and wages and in terms of racial “types.” In practice, the recruiting pools for soldiers and followers had significant overlap, although “menial follower” status, which encompassed cooks, sweepers, and syces, served to reinforce caste hierarchies.

The significant risks borne by followers made the distinction between combatant and noncombatant labor increasingly untenable. In 1914, followers began to be granted silver medals for war service, which replaced the inferior bronze medals handed out to nonwhite followers in previous conflicts. If they were exposed to fire in the line of duty, they received a medal clasp.

As the conflict wore on and labor became increasingly difficult to procure, followers won greater compensation. In 1917, faced with a shortage of mule drivers, British officials recategorized the job from noncombatant to combatant, earning the drivers new benefits of free rations and fuel and a shorter pension eligibility period. A member of the Labour and Porter Corps sent to France in 1917 would receive a higher monthly wage than a soldier; while British officials succeeded in keeping overall compensation for Indian soldiers at a higher rate (when benefits were included), the distinction between soldier and follower was breaking down. At the same time, followers agitated for control over their mobility. In November 1918, faced with an indefinite extension over their work contracts in Mesopotamia, a group of Indian laborers who had been recruited from jail went on strike. They won their demand, though it wasn’t a simple victory. When they arrived back in India they were sent straight back to jail to serve their original sentences.

Wars and pandemics are both moments of rupture. Chhabria argues that after the riots during the 1896 epidemic, the colonial authorities in Bombay shifted their attention from controlling people to controlling space, investing in the technologies of planning and sanitation that produced the modern city. Her argument is borne out by the aftermath of other epidemics in India: in the wake of both the influenza epidemic of 1957–58 and the 1994 Surat bubonic and pneumonic plague outbreak, municipal governments doubled down on projects of spatial reform, clearing slums, covering drains, and installing public toilets.

But accounts of the past that draw heavily on the concept of governmentality, as Chhabria’s does, tend to render historical processes inexorable and hard to reverse. Crises also usher in new possibilities. As Singha shows in The Coolie’s Great War, wartime imperatives forced British military officials to negotiate with followers over benefits and status. While concerns for the welfare of the Indian laborer were focused more on efficiency than social welfare, and though these hard-won gains largely failed to carry over into peacetime, we can see a clear shift in what forms of labor were accepted in an imperial context.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the struggles of India’s migrant workers harder to ignore, though we have yet to see much meaningful reform. In 2019, the Indian government launched a pilot version of One Nation, One Ration Card, a scheme intended to allow PDS beneficiaries to purchase subsidized food grains at any fair price shop in the country by making ration cards portable across state lines. As of November 2020, twenty-eight Indian states and union territories had signed up to ONORC. But the program has limitations: it stops short of universalizing PDS coverage; its reliance on biometric identification methods makes it vulnerable to gaps in network coverage in rural areas; and it fails to address needs beyond subsistence.

The migrants are not the only people who feel abandoned by the state. On the outskirts of Delhi, protesting farmers have established makeshift encampments, enduring temperatures that regularly drop below freezing. In January, in acknowledgement of the farmers’ demands, the Supreme Court of India suspended the new farm laws and set up a fact-finding committee. But the protesters, fed and clothed by a robust global network of supporters that stretches from rural Punjab to the Sikh diaspora, have vowed to fight until the laws are repealed entirely. They have succeeded in bringing rural India’s grievances to the borders of the nation’s capital, underscoring the links between the swelling ranks of urban migrants and declining agricultural yields. Implicit in their demands is the state’s fulfillment of the post-independence commitment to social welfare, a commitment that emerged from the long years of anti-colonial struggle. They echo the words of a follower serving in Mesopotamia in 1918: “Were we not promised to be free?”

Divya Subramanian is a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University.

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