On May 1 2020, International Worker’s Day, 18 Indian migrant workers boarded and hid in a cement mixer which was carrying them from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh. In the nationwide lock down imposed by the Indian government, migrant workers have found themselves to be forsaken by the capitalist ventures which employ them for minimal wages and by the government which has not done enough to ensure their safety in the time of the coronavirus.
After reading about these migrant workers, how could one not think back on the renowned Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s short story Men in the Sun (1962)? In that story, three Palestinian refugees find themselves stranded as they try to escape from Iraq to Kuwait without the requisite paperwork. Their desperate search for a livelihood forces them to agree to hide in a water tanker in order to cross the border unnoticed. The background of the story, although not mentioned, is the dispossession of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli settlers during the ‘Nakba’ or the ‘Great Catastrophe’ of 1948.
As the three Palestinians hide in the water tanker to escape surveillance at a checkpoint, their driver gets delayed at the checkpoint because of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles. The driver later discovers the three men have suffocated to death in the water tanker. He cries and asks, “Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank?”, forgetting that these men had no agency. Their lives had little value while they were alive, and no value once they are dead as the driver dumps their bodies on a garbage heap in the desert.
There is an eerie comparison between the migrant workers in India and Kanafani’s Palestinian refugees. Both had been rendered superfluous by states which should have been protecting them. Superfluous means excessive but also unnecessary—while the underpaid, migrant labor is essential in a developing, capitalist economy like India, the Indian government has shown that their lives mean little. In three weeks of the recent nationwide lock down, no measures have been made for the rehabilitation or safe transport of migrant laborers who form the backbone of the Indian economy. They are the first to be considered as expendable, while the bourgeois and elite sit in the safe comfort of their homes. Most of the migrant labor in India comes from lower castes and have already faced degrading caste-based discrimination and humiliation in their lives. As laborers, they are further reduced to statistics or ‘demographic dividend’ (around 60% of the Indian population is between 15-60 years) which aids a growing economy.
The act of hiding in a cement mixer or a water tanker shows us that we are often made to deliberately hide certain people from plain sight. The Indian state in the case of the Indian migrant laborers, and the Israeli state in the case of Palestinian refugees, has deliberately made certain people invisible to ensure the state’s smooth functioning.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on refugees and the problem of their assimilation within society. She notes that refugees are expected to lose any previous identity and, refugees and migrants are expected to invisibly mix within their host society. As soon as the national lock down was declared, no governmental thought or deliberation was given to the plight of migrant laborers: could they live somewhere they could follow social distancing; what could they eat in the absence of daily wages; could they return home in the absence of buses and trains? The ignorance of these problems shows that these people had long become superfluous and it only took the lock down to reveal their status in society. It might not even be too wild a conjecture to presume that the government, along with its supportive capitalists, wished to keep the migrant laborers stranded, so that the laborers could resume their work in construction sites and other such places once the lockdown would gradually ease.
In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt theorizes that it is our ability to labor, work and act that makes us human. While labor corresponds to daily needs and sustenance, work refers to fabrication at the hands of the human and the creation of a temporal objects at the hands of a temporal being. To act (and speak) refers to the human’s ability to create a shared public realm where a person’s unique identity is revealed. To become superfluous means to be robbed of the human condition, as the Indian migrant laborers have. They have been dehumanized by structures that profit from their existence, and have now relinquished them at their time of need.
By no longer viewing migrants and refugees as human, the state and capitalist structures which employ them absolve themselves of any responsibility towards them. The process of dehumanization starts by creating superfluous beings who seem beyond the pale of pity and empathy. While there are obvious differences between migrants and refugees, and hence divergences in the superfluity experienced by them as well, what unites them is that they are made superfluous to serve a larger, self-serving cause.
It stops seeming bizarre that people would resort to traveling in cement mixers or water tankers to reach destinations undetected. In the tragedy of their lives, their dehumanization performs a perverse catharsis: there is no purge of emotions as the state has set a precedent of not viewing the laborers or refugees as humans who deserve our empathy. The final achievement of the project of dehumanization is the creation of the apathetic viewer: one who cannot see and therefore cannot empathize with men in the harsh, Indian sun.