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May 01, 2020

An Ode to the Indian Worker Reading History

Our workers have learned the harsh lesson of the Indian lockdown – that all lives are not equal. They will ask, ‘If you can give two days notice to people to remember to clap their hands, why only four hours to us to gather up our meager belongings and start walking?’
Woodcut by Chittoprasad

It would be dangerous indeed to sing out from our balconies on this May Day, ‘Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!’

Never in the recent past have these words had the grotesque salience that they have today for the millions of working people who are on the brink of starvation – for no fault of theirs except that they do indeed belong to the wretched of the earth.

So an altogether different ‘mayday’ call has been sent out by India’s workers, who had already been reeling under the body blows of a failing economy, when  a public health crisis was compounded by colossal human miscalculation and callousness to bring about this avoidable catastrophe.

Irony indeed, that the call to commemorate the First of May as May Day in 1886 was to demand a shorter working day of 8 hours; Lenin in his inimitable manner had gone further in dividing the workers’ day into ‘8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours of recreation’. Now it will be workers themselves who will refuse to make the supreme sacrifice they have repeatedly been asked, especially since that fateful day in November 2016,  and now again in this moment of crisis. They will demand once more the right to work, perhaps any kind of work for any length of time, as a salve for the utter destitution they face.

They will, to adapt E.P. Thompson’s excellent essay on time discipline, certainly argue for and about time, rather than against it, as early industrial workers did. While the hyper visible and defiantly vocal middle class has been condemned to ‘luxurious idleness’, which the 1886 rallyists in Chicago had sought to end,  the enforced non-work time brings neither rest nor recreation, but, when there is food aplenty, only hunger and distress to the working class.

Still, what will be the ‘Questions of the Worker Reading History’, after a century and a half of claiming their rights to a shorter work week, better paid jobs, affordable healthcare, some shelter, the means of bringing up children with better life chances?  Not ‘why am I still here, the one who built those balconies from which you safely clap?’ No, it will be ‘You robbed us of work and wages, but why were we not even allowed to go home? Why rob us of the comfort of being among our loved ones? What of our dignity? Why were we made to frog leap, hop, bend, at gunpoint?’

The searing images of the long and humiliating walk home by lakhs of migrant workers, children on hips and heads, stumbling barefoot, sore and thirsty, dodging the state’s repressive apparatuses like criminals on the run, chastised like unruly law breakers: they will surely become the iconic napalmed-Vietnamese-child-running image of this lockdown.

So our workers have learned, as if they didn’t know this before, the harsh lesson of the Indian lockdown – that all lives are not equal, some lives, especially those who have balconies, are more precious than others. Our workers will ask, reading this history, ‘For years we demanded that we too partake of the Public Good – food, clothing, shelter, health, education –   but since you did not let that happen, why are we shouldering the greater burden of this Public Bad?’ They will rightly ask, reading this history, ‘If you can give two days notice to people to remember to clap their hands, why only four hours to us to gather up our meager belongings and start walking?’

There will be no rallies on this May Day, no rousing calls to unite humanity itself, to save or free the human race. But we can and must learn from the bewildering changes that unfold around us – above all, that to ‘work from home’ is not an option for close to 500 million of our people. So perhaps this years’ May Day call should not be about rights at all, but about the compassion and empathy that India sorely needs to unite its people.

If our domestic workers – who knows how many, 4.2 million (official) or 50 (unofficial)? – enjoy a well earned rest today, it will be only if they are freed from worrying about being paid for this enforced holiday. The working poor, like the WFH rich, should be free at least to choose their place of being, at this time of deathly crisis.  So let us mourn Jamalo Madkam, the 12 year old who died a few steps from her home after walking back from the chili fields of Telangana; let us grieve for Insaf Ali, who walked back to his door step in Shravasthi, UP  from Mumbai, only to be quarantined to death.  But let us celebrate the painful, but beautiful choice of Jadav Gogoi, who vows never to step out of his home after a gruelling 2800 km walk home to Assam from Ahmedabad. May he choose to ‘do one thing today and another tomorrow…hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner,’ just as he has a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic, and without ever turning into a wage slave again.

Janaki Nair taught at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

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