National

The Foot Power of the Footloose

Beyond the ideological blame game, beyond the political bickering, what did migrants walking on highways during lockdown teach us?

Artwork titled ‘Home’ by Sudipta Das
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In late March 2020, the national highways number 19, 65, and 48 branching out of Delhi, Patna, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkata were crammed with a different kind of traffic— instead of the rustle of rolling rubber on the scorching asphalt, a thud of marching human feet, a clatter of trolly suitcases, push carts, bicycles, and make-shift wheelchairs carrying the young and the elderly met the curious eyes of the onlookers, let alone the news-hungry camera lenses.

The cars took a break from the roads; and the roads became migrant highways. The images travelled faster than the virus that put them there in the first place. From the Grand Trunk Road to NH16, these are the highways of the footloose labour—to use the words of Dutch sociologist Jan Breman— of conquerors, pilgrims, traders, horsemen, migrants and vagrants.

Critics dubbed it as the greatest movement of people since the partition, some regarded it as a humanitarian crisis, but for many, it was a failure of imagination on part of the policy makers. The images of the throngs of hungry bodies, swollen feet, dehydrated infants, and emaciated men carrying loads double their weight invited, among others, what John Rawls would call, moral feelings. Unlike non-moral emotions such as jealous, rage, or spite, moral feelings are based on our inner impulse for justice, and have significant uses to public reason—indignation and guilt of those watching from the safety of their homes.

For the scholars in mobility and migration studies, these ‘homes’ of ours are no more than the markers of immobility; the signs of social stasis in a runaway world. Those who do not venture beyond homes, as the late Edward Said has passionately argued, tend to align their ideology with those of freeloaders, conquerors, raiders, nativists and fanatics. But migrants and exiles are those who learn to be both homeless at home and at home in the world. By virtue of being on the margins of their host societies, they develop a knack for moving away from the gravitas of power towards the periphery, “where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and the comfortable.” (Edward Said, Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals)

But in the Indian media, the COVID migrants themselves were neither at the centre nor the centre of the debate, though their photos were. The images were used to conjure up the usual ideological suspects—the left, the right and the liberals. The left did their thing—blame the State for its apathy towards the migrants. The State blamed it on the ‘fake news’ for triggering panic. The liberals were moved by the images they shared on their WhatsApp groups and retweet handles; sand artists crafted sculptures and songwriters wrote dirges.

For the average onlooker, though, it wasn’t quite clear what they should do with these images, and what sort of emotions they’d felt, or should feel. But what was clear, for many, was that something did not feel right about the migrants’ foot march under the searing sun in an age of wheel power. It did not feel right that a seventeen-year-old boy had to walk from Bengaluru for twenty-five days to reach his village in Gorakhpur district, with scabbed and swollen feet in worn out slippers; it did not feel right that a fifteen-year-old girl should cycle 1,200 kilometres from Gurgaon to Bihar to bring her sick father home; it did not feel right that the migrants should be sprayed with disinfects and be treated like pests; and it did not feel right that the only shelter they could find along their journey was the exposed roofs of the traffic bridges.

Beyond the ideological blame game of who was right and who was wrong, and beyond the political bickering of the ruling and the Opposition, what could the plight of the migrant workers teach us—us, the readers; us, the consumers of the images; us, the homed and homely with sufficient wheel power to allay the pain, and avert the tragedy of the foot-bound migrants—and what sort of ethical, affective injustices and enabling feelings it might expose us to?

Let me drift my focus away to the migrants of other nations to bring my point home. If there is anything the twentieth-century migration could teach us—especially those of us who dangerously flounder in, and flirt with the ideological staple of stable, fixed, originary and organic homes, those of us imprisoned by the inertia of immobility—it would be this: learn to leave our homes a little, as epitomised in the German philosopher Theodor W Adorno’s ethical maxim “it is part of our morality not to feel at home in one’s home”. (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia)

Does this mean we should have left the sanctuary of our homes during the pandemic and joined the migrants in solidarity for a day or two, in their long walk to freedom? That is not the implication of Adorno’s call for metaphysical homelessness; it is the fiction of organic homes we are so invested in that produce the homeless and nationless others in the first place.

This homelessness is more about the lessness of our homes than the lack of a home, for it is neither simply a despairing fate nor a damaged condition of those on their feet and flight. Instead, it is an ethical dictum to do away with the idea of providing large shelters to the homeless and turn the whole world into a large homeless shelter. This radical idea of erasing the distinction of home and homelessness through radical effacement of foreignness (and homelessness) is what the contemporary migrant condition calls for.

I wish to draw attention to the installation work of the South African artist William Kentridge in this regard. The work in question is called Shadow Procession; behind a white-lit canvas, the dark shadows of migrant and refugee figures stage a procession—a worker with his tools, a wedding party on the go, an Ebola patient on the back, a dead child in arms, two prosthetic legs and a flailing crutch, an overbearing plough, the dangling carcass of an animal, each body carrying what belongs to them, and they sing, they march, they dance, they turn the tide, they kill, and they carry the house on their shoulder, they carry the city, and then they carry the whole civilisation on their back: “All of history being carried on heads and shoulders and feet”. (Processional Ethics, Homi K Bhabha on William Kentridge's More Sweetly Play the Dance, Artforum, October 2016)

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There are several affective trajectories to be traced from this poignant edict of Kentridge. The COVID migrants are the epitome of history-carrying subjects between their heads and shoulders and feet in gunny sacks. They are the stark reminder of our intertwined histories and pickled pasts; how vagrant and porous the trails of their footsteps had been before our regimes of home and immobility kicked in—be they in the name of nation, tribal or linguistic boundaries. There were many misconception that many of the COVID migrants from the megacities are returning to their “homes”—their villages. This could be farther from the truth; most villages in the Ghaziabad district, or the Nalanda district of Bihar, or even the famous Palamur labourers from Telangana, would not consider their villages —barely kept alive by the overwhelming presence of the elderly, past their prime on their feet—as their “homes”.

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On many occasions, the villagers, fearing infection, did not allow the migrant returnees to enter the village. So much for homecoming! And for many, suicide was a better option than the prospect of returning to villages with hardly any prospects, which made it all the more exigent to find a sense of home in flight, and in their refuged shelters in Mother India’s underbelly.

We have heard multiple outcries of the migrants on the road—“we don’t want to be on the roads, but if we don’t leave now, hunger will kill us, let alone the virus”. These are the migrants who are neither home in their villages, nor at home in their new settlements. They are at home everywhere and homeless everywhere. They are at home wherever they can perch the gunny sack of their entire history – reduced to a handfull of belongings – and find the means to stave off starvation.

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Does this mean that we, the serene subjects of immobility, must emulate the sorry condition of their homelessness? That would hardly be the solution. But the least we could do is make our homes less homely by opening them to the foreigner and the stranger, thereby learn ‘not to be at home in one’s home’. Even better is to become the participant of transit migrancy, as it is known in South America, where the locals provide en route migrant caravans temporary shelter and support and help them reach their destination (Alejandra Cárdenas, 'A Pueblo' that Walks Together… University of Essex, 2018)

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Such ethical and affective gesture(s) on parts of the host and host cities may have prevented the many migrants setting themselves on the perilous journey to their villages in the first place. Rather than relegating our responsibility to ‘empathy fatigue’, or desensitisation of the other’s suffering, we could have prevented the refuge of those who carry our city’s refuse, of those who carry the entire civilisation on their backs:

"foot power remains, in the twenty-first century, the motor of movement … the foot power of refugees fleeing, of populations moving across Africa, of displaced people crossing borders at the end of World War II and during our own migration crises in Eritrea, Iraq, Syria, Greece, the Mediterranean. All of history being carried on heads and shoulders and feet." (Bhabha)

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The poetic truth of Bhabha’s words is almost tragical—for the COVID migrants, foot power prevails over the wheel power of modernity, not because they chose to walk, but for many the public transport (fares of Rs 1,500-3,000) was beyond their means. Yet, it is in transit, being on foot, being caught up in the regimes of waiting—waiting for food, waiting for security cardon to clear, waiting for news, waiting for the transportation to arrive—that social bonds, trust, the spirit of a community and the capacity of new public sphere emerge.

Consider, for instance, the so-called road families in South American migrant caravans (Alejandra Cárdenas, 'A Pueblo'…), which are on the move along with children, are likely to bond and share resources with other migrants with children. It is on the road, being on the flight, that migrants find company, companionship, and matters of trust become paramount than they would in the presumed safety of our homes.

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But are we to say that our homes are free of oppression, repression, depression, patriarchy, domestic pathos, sibling rivalries, caste feuds, clan wars, internal hierarchies and inverted colonialisms? The opposite, indeed, is the case—it is because of the troubles at home that most migrants find roads to be safer than homes, and waters safer than land. (Warsan Shire’s poem “Home” and Polly Pallister Wilkins “Walking, Not Flowing”)

It is thus no wonder that the COVID migrants of India, like all other involuntary migrants, move in throngs, in overloaded trucks and boats, as if the physical act of being crammed together is a safety mechanism that produces corporal intimacy and affinity:

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“in contrast to modernity’s quest for faster, more convenient, more efficient modes of travel to overcome the limits of the body as it encounters and moves through space, the migrant caravan’s mode(s) of travel—walking, stopping, starting, bus hopping, sitting, waiting, sleeping—bring into sharp relief the ways that for those excluded from privileged mobility regimes, the body is in intimate concert with the material world it encounters.” (Polly Pallister-Wilkins)

In turn, these material worlds that the migrants encounter transform the infrastructural grids laid out by the State(s) to contain the movement of its citizenry, and carve out new routes of movement through forests, rivers, mountains and rugged terrain often at a great cost to their safety and even lives, like the deaths of sixteen migrants sleeping on the railway tracks in Aurangabad district in June 2020.

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Many of my friends and academic colleagues raised logical questions like “were the migrants so suicidal (‘stupidity’ was the implied suggestion) to sleep on the railway tracks?” But logic alone cannot explain why almost 8,700 migrants died on the railway tracks in 2020 alone.

Instead of blaming the exhausted, half-dazed migrants who collapsed, thinking that they would be safer on the tracks than the roads patrolled by the police—like waters were safer than land, and roads safer than homes—they should be questioning both the absent State and the absent state of our solidarity that did not venture beyond our gated homes and immobility regimes.

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Those of us who seek spatial continuity by rooting for the right to belong to our originary homes, also seek continuity of oneness, stasis, and communal creed that have gripped this nation like a pandemic more dangerous than the one we have just survived. It is more dangerous for the simple reason that it is in the name of home, we other the neighbour; it is in the name of the nation, we wage wars; and it is, in the end, in the domestic pathos of the home that we learn to kill our brothers and sisters. If countries and homes were diseases that call for a cure, the antidote is right in our faces—rather than seeing the migrants as the objects of debate between the right, left or the liberal, it is in the foot power of the footloose that we find the brave and burnt mantle of our own homelessness.

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