I’ve been following the elite media’s and the elite establishment’s sudden and heartfelt discovery of the tragedy of the “Faceless migrant worker”. It’s as though these commentators are entirely innocent of even recent history and the role that so many economists, intellectuals, the media and all political parties – but the Congress (the Old Congress) and the Bharatiya Janata Party mainly – have actively played in bringing things to such a pass.

Some of the very same people who now appear to be in shock were cheerleaders while labour protection laws were dismantled, and a huge campaign was mounted to violently appropriate the land and resources of the rural poor and push them out of the countryside.

It was not something that just happened. It was a planned policy that was implemented over decades in which the poor were simply airbrushed out of the picture. To mitigate the devastation, the Congress brought in the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act that gave rural families 100 days of work a year. The BJP has hollowed out even that. Those of us who have argued about all this for years have been called anti-nationals, terrorist sympathisers and worse. The best and most dedicated amongst us – lawyers, academics and activists – are in jail serving life sentences or running the risk of getting the coronavirus.

The crisis of hunger and the crisis of hatred that the coronavirus pandemic has amplified have been incubated in this country by mainstream political parties, policy makers and the mainstream media for years. Communalism and Corporate Capitalism have waltzed together arm in arm and we are now seeing the ravages of their deadly dance.

We can’t all collectively pretend that everything that has happened is completely unforeseen and that nobody is responsible. This short piece, from the introduction to my book Broken Republic, was written in 2011 when the Congress Party was in power. It is about this process – the erasure of the poor from our imaginations. Even as people express their anguish at was has befallen the poor, in the fog of this panicdemic, measures are being put in place to make things even worse for the poor.

We are heading towards mass hunger, it is imperative to get both food and money to people who are broke and starving. Where will the food come from? From the warehouses which have millions of tonnes of grain waiting for God knows Who. Where will the money come from? Quite simply, from those people and institutions who have it.

We live in a country in which 63 billionaires hold more wealth than the Union Budget outlay for a year. If you can consider emergency labour laws that make starving, semi-enslaved, traumatised people work a 12-hour day, you can have some emergency laws for the wealthy too. And you can put a system in place that makes sure that food and money gets to the millions of people who need it.

We need to plan how we are going to live in a future that hardly bears thinking about. We need brains. And we need heart. And we need accountability. Enough of the cheap, stupid theatrics.

Migrant workers in Ghazibad trying to catch a bus to Uttar Pradesh on March 28 in the midst of a national lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

And the President took the salute

Part I

The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities.

He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants, he thinks, would make a good business model.

Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Mumbai called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford it shouldn’t live in cities.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great dams and quarries. Their homes were occupied by hunger, and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas.

War had migrated too. From the edges of India, in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, to its heart. So the people returned to the crowded city streets and pavements. They crammed into hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.

The Minister said that migrants to cities were mostly criminals and “carried a kind of behaviour which is unacceptable to modern cities”.

The middle class admired him for his forthrightness, for having the courage to call a spade a spade.

The Minister said he would set up more police stations, recruit more policemen and put more police vehicles on the road to improve law and order.

To make Delhi a world-class city for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, laws were passed that made the poor vanish, like laundry stains. Street vendors disappeared, rickshaw pullers lost their licences, small shops and businesses were shut down. Beggars were rounded up, tried by mobile magistrates in mobile courts and dropped outside the city limits. The slums that remained were screened off, with vinyl billboards that said DELHIciously Yours.

New kinds of policemen patrolled the streets, better armed, better dressed and trained not to scratch their privates in public, no matter how grave the provocation. There were cameras everywhere, recording everything.

Part II

Two young criminals carrying a kind of behaviour which was unacceptable to modern cities escaped the police dragnet, and approached a woman sandwiched between her sunglasses and the leather seats of her shiny car at a traffic crossing. Shamelessly they demanded money.

The woman was rich and kind. The criminals’ heads were no higher than her car window. Their names were Rukmini and Kamli. Or maybe Mehrunissa and Shahbano. (Who cares?)

The woman gave them money and some motherly advice. Ten rupees to Kamli (or Shahbano). “Share it,” she told them, and sped away when the lights changed.

Rukmini and Kamli (or Mehrunissa and Shahbano) tore into each other like gladiators, like lifers in a prison yard. Each sleek car that flashed past them, and almost crushed them, carried the reflection of their battle, their fight to the finish, on its shining door.

Eventually both girls disappeared without a trace, like thousands of children do in Delhi.

The Games were a success.

Part III

Two months later, on the sixty-second anniversary of India becoming a Republic, the armed forces showcased their new weapons at the Republic Day parade.

Russian multi-barrel rocket launchers, combat aircraft, light helicopters and underwater weapons for the navy. The new T-90 battle tank was called Bhishma. (The older one was Arjun.) Varunastra was the name of the latest heavyweight torpedo, and Mareech was a decoy system to seduce incoming torpedoes. (Hanuman and Vajra are the names painted on the armoured vehicles that patrol Kashmir’s frozen streets.)

That the names were drawn from Hindu epics was just a coincidence. If India is a Hindu nation, it’s only an accident.

Dare Devils from the Army’s Corps of Signals rode motorcycles in a rocket formation. Then they formed a cluster of flying birds and finally a human pyramid.

Overhead Sukhoi fighter jets made a trishul, a trident in the sky. Each jet cost more than a billion rupees. Four billion then, for Shiva’s Trident.

The thrilled crowd turned its face up to the weak, winter sun and applauded. High in the sky, the winking silver sides of the jets carried the reflection of Rukmini’s and Kamli’s (or Mehrunissa’s and Shahbano’s) fight to the death.

The army band played the national anthem. The President drew the pallu of her sari over her head and took the salute.

February 2011

Excerpted with permission Broken Republic: Three Essays, Arundhati Roy, Penguin India.

Arundhati Roy. Credit: Mayank Austen Soofi