The 1947 Partition remains the bloodiest, most defining event of modern Indian history. As British India gained independence and was severed in two, tens of millions of people who’d had homes for generations in the areas that became India and Pakistan found themselves desperately fleeing to the other country, largely along religious lines. About 15 million people were displaced, many of whom never made it to their new home: Sickening, horrific sectarian violence abounded during the journeys and left up to 2 million people dead.
So, comparisons to this historic tragedy are not to be made lightly. And if it’s true, as some are noting, that the current migration crisis in India is its biggest and worst since the Partition, it deserves due attention and action. This crisis is one of the deadliest consequences of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the country, and likely a portent not only for India but perhaps the rest of the world.
Much like in other countries, COVID-19’s effect on India has been in part to starkly lay bare the inequities and injustices that make it the second-most unequal society in the world. One of these is the nation’s massive informal workforce: the domestic workers, caretakers, door-to-door sellers, street entertainers, fruit stand owners, and many more who make up a vast, unincorporated sector of the Indian economy: more than 90 percent of its total workforce, totaling 450 million people, most of whom make a pittance in wages and earn no benefits even as they contribute to the bustling commerce and livelihood of their communities.
A large portion of urban Indian residents, both wealthy and not, often hire servants to cook, clean, look after seniors and children, and generally maintain their households. These workers are often women who come from far-off villages and are their often-poor families’ only financial support. In return for their effort, these laborers get paid by families and perhaps get a small place to stay, although they’re more likely to be housed in a nearby slum. If they’re lucky, they may get treated fondly and like family by their employers, and perhaps have a second home. But more often than not, class systems make for miserable treatment for these workers: The excruciating amount of work required often does not match the compensation, domestic and sexual violence is not uncommon, and laborers may be victims of human trafficking.
Already ill-treated by their employers and a system that offers them no support, these migrant workers are now further suffering due to the coronavirus, and not just from illness. In part, they can thank the government’s creeping response. By early March, India had not yet reported many cases, and earned the World Health Organization’s praise. But testing capacity was insufficient for the second-most-populous country in the world, and even as registered cases soon rapidly rose, the figures didn’t quite capture the depth of the health crisis. On March 25, as the official case count surpassed 600, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally instituted a haphazard lockdown, forcing the nation’s entire population of 1.3 billion indoors. Initially only taking place for 21 days, it was soon continually extended until mid-May, with regions divided into different zones per rate of infection and a gradual reopening planned starting Monday, with some restrictions already eased.
But as India’s doors and economy closed, too many domestic workers were likewise closed out of their places of employment. Tens of millions have been left without even the small wages they were earning, and no means of staying in their meager living conditions. Thus, they are now attempting to return to their home states and families however they can—although many can’t even afford the fare for trains to expedite the trip from cities like Mumbai and Delhi to states like Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh. (Indian Railways canceled all travel for June 30 and before, so these are “special trains” specifically marked for aid and connection purposes that operate on an extremely limited basis, leading to lengthy waits.) So they’re walking, dragging their lifelong possessions and children with them on a brutal expedition, often with no money, basic communication technology, friends to help, or knowledge of places to stop for shelter along the way.
Abandoned by the employers whose livelihoods they’d kept afloat, with no financial cushion or emergency housing access, these new migrants are now adrift. Wrenching photos abound of them walking across desolate spaces, waiting in crowds for trains, venturing home while suffering and hungry. And as they’re traveling, they’re being neglected and mistreated. Orders to help quarantine the migrants are falling flat; it’s already impossible for many of India’s poor to socially distance, yet police are brutalizing violators for not adhering to rules in a situation they were forced into, by beating them and spraying them with disinfectant (part of a general trend of police abuse of power during the pandemic). Some migrants have protested this violence, only to face more crackdowns. Some have been killed along the way, struck by cars or buses or trains. So many of these people are not going to make it home, whether they are killed by outside forces or die of starvation. The clashes and loss of life here may not be anywhere near as brutal as the sheer inhumanity of Partition, but the scale of mass death of some of India’s most spurned people is likely to have similarly lasting repercussions.
So where is the government during all of this? Shortly after the lockdown was first imposed, the Modi administration informed the Supreme Court that it had taken measures to provide food and housing to migrants, enough so that none of them were taking to the streets. This was blatantly false. Widespread food distribution and an economic stimulus intended to help the poor did too little to uplift the majority of down-and-out laborers, and it’s highly unlikely that even another planned package (mostly aimed at businesses) will be sufficient. And on Friday, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to the government to seek food and shelter for migrants, declaring that such actions should be left to the states.
When India finally opens back up, the innumerable people who lost their jobs will have no guaranteed reentry. These are no temporary furloughs or structured processes for leave. The vast loss is indefinite, undocumented, and devastating. Many of these workers are illiterate and possess no other education or “skills” translatable to other fields, valuable as their work actually is to the families they work for and the general running of the economy. People are lost, more so than ever before. They need homes, support, treatment, guided reintegration. But the government is too busy culture warring and bungling the virus response to do anything for them, if it even cares.
All this is taking place before the monsoon season, which may not only bring a second wave of migrants but also add further infrastructure damage, building on top of the devastating climate and environmental emergencies of the past few years, from floods to dried-up food and water supplies to droughts. The next few months are going to be sheer torture, and the biggest mass movement since Partition will no doubt have earth-shaking consequences.