The most iconic image of India’s fight for freedom is the Dandi March led by Mahatma Gandhi. The frail, yet tightly-knotted musculature of the Mahatma, with a band of men and women following in his wake, is entrenched in the national consciousness.
The defining images of India’s Independence are the many visuals of Partition, of millions walking through devastation, horror and starvation, to arrive at their nation.
Perhaps, what best defines our current times are the images of the thousands of homeless migrants walking home, given four hours to prepare for the largest lockdown in the history of the world. For more than two months, thousands have been walking without food, shelter, or basic sustenance, to reach their homes.
These are the invisible men and women whom we cannot see or hear and will not speak of. We are akin to Gandhi’s most loved allusion: the three monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.
Some perverse impediment seems to be preventing the state from providing minimal relief. Economic packages and a slew of measures have been announced, but nothing that even begins to address the migrants’ problems.
The distressed migrants are still struggling to reach their homes. Every day, on the news and across social media, we are bombarded with images of these families, living and dying on the roads as their exodus continues.
For the better off, who remain in the cities, quarantined in their homes, diversion has been provided by special reruns of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
India lives in its villages, but it has been forced to go to its cities to work. We have created a nation where nearly half of the wealth is generated by the labour of these unseen and unheard men, women and children. We call them migrant labour.
For all the wealth generated by the cities, the migrants live in poverty, working in jobs that profit others but bring them very little. These men, women and children, they are the salt of the earth. Without them there would be no cities.
The lockdown has finally propelled the stories of their lives into the open, as they deal with the indifference and brutality with which they were simply abandoned by the nation and by governments across the country.
“We are the hollow men…our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless.
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…”
– TS Eliot, The Hollow Men
Blow your conches, clang your thalis, the men, the women, they leave the town.
Light a lamp, switch off the lights, a thousand will die by night.
A child is born, it looks bewildered.
This strange, this grey, this road, his birthing way,
His mother, cold,
Waited, with last breath,
Him to hold.
Go ring your bells and dance awhirl,
A woman has died, a woman has died!
Sing songs of Gods and their grace,
Announce millions to save the human race.
By decree Gods, their loves, their hates
Their stories, their immortal fates, enter homes where people wait.
A finger wags, listen and learn, abandon vice, be cleansed, and watch gods face.
Wait, wait, they speak of an age
When the earth will fill with rage
It is written, proclaims the knowing sage
This story old as human fate
Its melancholy, its disgrace
Will find good end
When men will look up and rise
O, salt of the earth, hold your tenuous mortal bind,
The gods will fight your war, this injustice blind
Keep your fragile strength and remember the time
One man walked and changed the world.
In 2015, two commemorative stamps of a migrant were released by the Prime Minister. In 1914, Gandhi left his country of residence, South Africa, and his struggle there for the right to life and dignity to return to his native land. That fight had armed him with the methods that he would put to use in India.
The returning native saw the horrors of Indians’ lives under the British, and he devoted his life to a fight for freedom, for independence. His chosen weapons empowered a nation of impoverished millions at an epochal moment in history, to overturn the tyrannical might of an Empire, resulting in the birth of a nation.
I think of the most famous migrant, the returning native, who wanted a home, a country. In his vision for India, there was a desire for a strong self-sufficient country, where the village was a self-contained unit of production, where men and women were equals, and society not riven by inequalities, caste or conflict. What we have today, is not what he fought for. This was not his dream.
Will the people in power today, who stand by and silently watch a tragedy of epic proportions unfold across the country, think fit to release a stamp to honour the millions of returning migrants across India?
Chitvan Gill is a writer, documentary photographer and independent filmmaker.