It's not a morning walk. It's not a pilgrimage. The walk of migrant workers towards their home is a march against the stripping of their democratic rights. With their walk, they are defying the system, walking on roads which they are not allowed to tread.
This walk is not like the one that people saw in 1947. This is the first time these people have been seen trudging along the Agra-Lucknow or Surat-Ahmedabad Expressways. The world is watching them leave these cities.
Surat, Mumbai, Nagpur, Hyderabad. The labour settlements in these big cities may be cramped, they may not have water or air, but the confined rooms used to shelter them, even gave them a block identity. It gave them the right to be counted as men in the villages that they left behind many years ago. When you get a bit of respect in in life, a slice of equality, and suddenly it all goes away with a lockdown after March 24, you lose your voice. That's why I call this march of workers a silent march. They are in shock.
When the worker and his family went to their village during Holi or Diwali, the shimmer of their clothes could light up a village from afar. Someone has come from the city with earnings. He is sending his kids to school there. He has a TV in his home. Now, when he will reach his home after walking for weeks, his clothes will not have that sheen. The exhaustion on his face and the calluses on his feet will be difficult to cover up. Imagine his chills when thinking about facing the village where he has shown up as a winner for years.
The bundles on the heads of those who are walking home are not large or heavy because they contain clothes and utensils. When when they enter their village, everyone will see that this is all they have. This time, the stuff will not be seen, but counted. That's why he doesn't want anyone to see him at this time. Or anyone to talk to him at this time. He doesn't want to be spotlit inadvertently by the government that has not seen him even after 40 days. He is worried about being exposed to society.
That's why you should listen to his conversations with reporters on the highway. They speak like those tickers scrolling under a news channel that speak in single lines. Which don't get importance despite the information they carry. "Walking for a week". "Coming from Haryana". "Going to Champaran". "Have two kids". "Don't have food". "Don't have rent". That's it. His pain is not literary.
Those walking are just searching the one road that is not overrun by cops. In Surat, the worker takes to these strange roads at night-time. He has stopped counting the distance in kilometres. The headlamps from an occasional car lights up the colourful borders of the saris worn by his wife. They don't even turn and look at the car. There is no hope that someone will give them a lift for a while. Not just a few nights, they need the darkness of a few days as well to reach their villages in silence.
In the democratic history of India, these people have taken out many marches with the flags and photos of several parties and leaders. This time, when they had to set out on a march, no party or leader came to their help. Delhi kept giving its orders - the same Delhi that they have left for Bihar. In Independent India, this is the first march where anyone walked with their backs to Delhi. Until now, all marches said "Dilli Chalo".
The modernity of metros and their democracies have been exposed. The woman carrying her child while she drags her suitcase on the road haunts me like an endless question. Her saree blows in the wind. As long as the viral video focuses on the feet, she seems like an international traveller. As soon as the camera focuses on her face, it becomes apparent that she is a walking labourer.
She is returning to where she came from. It is our modernity, our compassion, our consciousness that have migrated from the place that she is leaving behind. I don't think those walking away from Mumbai, Surat and Delhi are migrants. The ones locked behind the gates of housing societies and residential welfare associations are the real migrants. They have migrated from the pain and the stories of their own people. The workers haven't left us, our megacities have left them.
(Ravish Kumar is Managing Editor, NDTV India.)
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