Death In the Village
Outlook|July 27, 2020 Vol.ll
It’s an umbilical severance, but the migrant worker will return to take that only chance for life: the city
After the initial sense of grand tragedy ebbed, the image of lakhs of migrant workers returning to the village brought about a nostalgic turn in the minds of some urban commentators. They were once again seduced by the notion that the Indian village is an endur­ ing space from an ideal past—the last refuge of sanity, order and values in times of global disarray. A resilient idyll. Some were moved to recall the gram swaraj alternative as envisaged by Gandhi. Some felt it was a reading of val­ues that had exerted its pull on migrant workers: they had seen through the cit­ies as a morally doomed hell, and their love for the villages seemed infinite on the rebound. The city appeared heart­ less, the village compassionate. But all that vicarious love sprang in urban hearts without conceding the fact that the Indian village is itself the problem. It is the first of the maladies for migrants, the very reason why they are migrants.

The problem of migrant workers is not to be defined in terms of a choice be­ tween village and city. It is about a condi­tion in which they are neither part of the village, nor part of the city. Privileged migrants can belong anywhere. They can feel equally at home in Sydney, Dubai and Toronto..and move seamlessly bet­ ween Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub and Koramangala’s pubs. They are in ‘home­ towns’ when they come to Patna, Patiala and Palakkad. Villages are their ances­tral lands. But the migrant labourers are literally called pardesi/bidesi at home and pardesi outside. ‘Those who have gone to other lands’, and ‘those who have come from other lands’. Outsiders in the village. Outsiders in the city.

The usual way of seeing the relation­ ship between migrant workers and the village is the economic one. But this entails only one part of the problem. Migration is a response to a deeply socio­cultural malady too. The Indian village creates a horrendous condi­tion for people; it impels them to migrate. It makes the lives of women, Dalits and other disempowered castes an unspeakable hell. It is a grave­ yard of individual freedom and equality, the deathbed of justice and dignity. It cannot see Dalits wearing a new dress, or slippers, or riding a horse. It cannot take women walking about freely, or ‘laughing­out­loud’. Ideas and people cannot meet or mix, new winds cannot blow. It is ad­ verse to love, life and freedom of mind. Hierarchies are so entrenched in village life that any possibility of equality becomes impossible.

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