Round Table India
You Are Reading
To speak of Migrant workers is to speak of Politics today

To speak of Migrant workers is to speak of Politics today

vishal V

Vishal Verma

vishal VThe politics in India which has continuously been called ‘democractic’ has sustained for more than 70 years. With riots and uprisings[i] having  been an  intrinsic part of it. Where the former,  has always been advantageous for Indian democracy to consolidate its power through the mediation of an institutionally    centralised state form. The latter, usually, radically shakes the established structures of power called State  through an assertion of the strength of people, who were kept at absence.  Thereby demonstrating a strength of their absence[ii].

Today, during the Corona pandemic, an inexistent[iii]of the world, called the ‘Migrant worker’ has started to exist in this same world with maximum inten­sity. Let’s see a picture of it. So much has already been written about the Coronavirus epidemic, as a non-specialist observer with very limited access and interest in data, I have nothing to add about the epidemic’s origin, characteristics and ideology. But perhaps, I would be interested in questioning the logic of the State to deal with the crisis. Here, we must not forget that a virus called COVID-19 has shaken the world, not solely because of its highly contagious parasitic nature but due to the failure of the logic of the State itself, which can be exposed in three stages[iv].

First, State in Denial: It is being said that if an authoritarian party-state China valued free speech, then Li Wenliang (the doctor who first discovered the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and was censored by authorities) would not have died, and thus, there would  not have been a Coronavirus pandemic . Zizek reminds us, “the whole functioning of the Chinese state apparatus runs against old Mao’s motto “Trust the people!” Rather, today what we see is that the government runs on the principle that one should NOT trust the people: the people should be loved, protected, taken care of, controlled . . . but not trusted”[v]. The recent mysterious case of disappearing a Chinese ecological Marxist student further points out how such a crisis will happen again and again. This denial logic of the State is not only limited to the authoritarian party-state China but is present in almost every State, irrespective of its democratic or fascist nature.  Whether it be in the East or the West, States have preferred to deny the danger of the virus at first instance, including in the so-called Indian democracy.

Second, State in Bargaining, at this stage, State starts bargaining the hope of life, while imposing social distancing, quarantining the suspect body/houses/localities into isolation, and goes to the extent of completely locking down and totally sealing infected areas to slow down the virus’ spread. On March 24, at 8pm, the Prime Minister of Indian Democracy, Narendra Modi, appeared on TV, with his mantra “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai” (Life exists, so the world exists) and announced a 21 days national lockdown which is likely to get extended for longer. To my mind, his mantra “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai,” actually explains the terrific nature of the State in Bargaining, where it can be seen as attempting to postpone everything but life. Tragically, life and livelihood, during the course of human development, has been so complexly intertwined with the world that any sort of attempt to separate it would damage both badly. The loss of numerous lives because of lost livelihoods during the national lockdown is linked to the inevitable fall of local, national and global economy and can be seen as examples of unavoidable damages. Further, more concretely, the migrant workers can be seen as starting to  expose the failed Indian democracy and its brutal, structural, social and economic inequality. It seems a militant restitution of the inexistent/absence, migrant workers, who are/were present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future is at the gate of Indian democracy, which had, hitherto, been closed for them.

Third, State in acceptance, what is interesting about this stage is that almost every State accepts that the pandemic is not going to explode and then, pass, rather, it’s going to persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. It is being emphasized again and again that a strong state is needed in times of epidemics since large-scale measures like social distancing have to be performed with military discipline. Likewise, a strong economic policy is needed in post-corona times to keep the economy afloat, as also, a strong surveillance apparatus is needed to track the transmission of the virus and the movement of the contaminated body. Basically, at this stage, the State desperately wants to restore its constituted order and the structure of power itself,  whose limitations have been exposed during the pandemic.

This presents one side of the story, where a failed state and its structure of power gets exposed against which it struggles to regain its control through institutionalised violence. The other side of the picture is yet to be seen , which until now has been  kept away. The absent presence of the migrant worker has up till now been instrumental but insignificant. But since 24-25th March midnight onwards, all of India went under lockdown, markets got closed, all transport, public as well as private, was disallowed; lakhs of migrant workers spontaneously started gathering at the Delhi-UP border. Hundreds of them started walking for their homes which were another hundred kilometres away. This act marked a clear disobedience of the lockdown and was a strong rejection of the logic of the State by those who were until now,  absent.
migrant workers covid

Picture credit: Bhuvan Bagga/AFP

A carpenter called Ramjeet, who had planned to walk all the way to Gorakhpur near the Nepal border, said to Arundhati Roy: “Maybe when Modi ji decided to do this, nobody told him about us. Maybe he doesn’t know about us”. Roy clarifies that, “us,” here means approximately 460 million people. What surprises me here is his hope in somebody who could have told Modi, but didn’t  and it is in knowing that nobody reminded Modi about migrant workers that he despairs. One must ask, what is this master signifier called somebody/nobody? The logic of State itself, the structure of power, or a constituted range of Indian democracy? The invisibilized migrant workers are excluded from the constituted space of Indian democracy, reduced to an insignificant vote. The extraction of their labour power has been multiplied to sustain the life of such a constituted space, but the labouring body has been kept at absence. Their existence has  been reduced to an inexistence.

Let’s come back to the strength of absence. Until now, we have seen that the term ‘democracy’ is being used here to describe a constituted body-politic which restores a myth of freedom and justice through regular electioneering rituals. Democracy, however, may contain materiality of radical potentials which comes to light if and only if it means the assertion of the strength of absence or the restitution of the inexistent. In other words, if the Indian body politic called democracy has failed to open its constituent space for absence, i.e. for marginalised like dalits, women, minorities, queer and indigenous people. Thus, the radical restitution of democracy is needed, that would not be a constituted body politic but the constituent capacities of marginalised itself.

A crisis like the corona pandemic has exposed that a large section of marginalised migrant workers are inexistent/absent from democracy’s meaning and in the making of the decisions about their future in the existing/constituted body politic. That is why, the constituent strength of those absent/inexistent would only be visible once its assertion radically challenges the already constituted structure of  power/logic of the State. During the national lockdown, they are certainly forced to walk and sleep on the road, but their strength would only be materialised when they expand the existing fixed/constituted body politic and make their space into it (if not make an alternative liberated space for themselves). So, one of  the most repeated questions that one falls back upon again is,  that, “All this romantic radicalism sounds desirable if not fantastic, but the point is how to make the inexistent exist? How to assert the presence of the absence? How does the constituent strength of the migrant worker challenge the constituted structure of power?”

These questions can never get its answers through a privileged intellectual effort, so it should be left to its spontaneity and uncertainty, what is required at this moment is to recognise the problem first. I firmly believe our job, at this moment, is to think about migrant workers as political subjects like ‘proletariat’ in the 20th century. There is a middle class guilt loaded with sentiment about the migrant workers, “शहर छोड़कर गए लोगों तुम वापस मत आना… बेचारा कौन है, ये अब शायद हम समझेंगे”, which contains nothing more than empty-anger and sound-humanity. But what if migrant workers take their act more seriously? If they truly refused to come back to the city? Especially when in the city, they are not going to get their unions/organisations through which they could make their existence possible (even most of those who did have a union, even if so, under the control of upper caste/higher elite class, are made inexistent). The migrant workers, I believe, could have refused the desire of global capitalism and accumulated paths of money in the city. But, they won’t.

First, historically, they belong from a community who are not socially entitled to possess any land and property in their own locality, their survival is always based on their body and labour which continues to get humiliated, exploited and marginalised. This is not to say that migration from their village emancipates them from humiliation, exploitation and marginalization but it provides them with a new ‘mask’ to bargain the hope and hide the pain. It certainly empowers them  with albeit, a  fictitious but a notion of self respect. There is a manifestation of that social mobility, when they return back to their village with money and a taste in urban fashion. Second, in the race of accumulated urban centric global capitalism, the local livelihood of the entire village breathes its last, which leaves  them with no option but to migrate. The brutal ecological impact of dying local livelihood has already been talked and discussed much in this regard.

Just to summarise, feeding migrants workers to whatever extent possible may be the most urgent need during the national lockdown and so, it is being argued, about trending #Migrantlivesmatters but a new State of exception is solidifying the already existing inequality and burdening the migrant workers in post-corona economy and harsh realities are waiting ahead for them.  Can we think of challenging it? Can we think of resettling migrant workers in their own locality? Is it possible to think of that without annihilating the caste system? Is it possible without equal share in land, nature and culture? (Dear anti-capitalists, if all this is done, capitalism would die in itself!!). What I am actually trying to argue is that in the post corona times, we may also suspend everything to resolve one central issue, that is the resettlement of migrant workers in their own native locality. This may sound like a utopian project but it militantly touches the other complex social, political, ecological contradictions. In other words, to think of migrant workers is to think of the most complex problems today. To speak of migrant workers is to speak of politics today.



[i] Here, I am using riots as communally motivated violence and uprisings as militant assertions of the marginalized.

[ii] I am borrowing these categories from Negri’s book called Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. Though, I am using it in a very different context if not deferring the meaning itself.  

[iii] Let us call these people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future, the inexistent of the world. (Alain Badiou, The rebirth of history, p- 56)

[iv] These categories of “stages” have been directly borrowed from Zizek’s latest book called Pandemic: COVID 19 shakes the world.  Though Zizek has argued about five stages, I am only finding three stages are important to make my points, which are again being used in a bit different context.   

[v] Zizek, Slavoj; Pandemic: COVID 19 shakes the world. OR Books, New York & London, 2020, p- 7-8


Vishal Verma is a Research Scholar at Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, JNU and is interested in Critical theory, Students Politics and  Social Movements.