Question Number One: When Mumbaikars watched the graphic television images of the migrant drama unfolding outside the suburban Bandra station last afternoon - nearly two thousand of 'them' - they scratched their heads in disbelief and asked, "Are you sure this is happening in Bandra? I mean...Bandra? Sure it isn't Delhi? Didn't realize there were so many of 'these people' hanging around in the Queen of the Suburbs." That's the thing about Mumbai and Mumbaikars. For all our grandiose notions about ourselves and how amazing we are, the truth is we suffer from selective vision. We see what we wish to see. The rest is a blur. Then comes the question of who qualifies as a card-holding, bona fide Mumbaikar to start with. Can these migrants be called Mumbaikars? I mean, genuine Mumbaikars, like us? Where on earth were they hiding all this while? How did so many of them suddenly tapko at the same time, and cause such takleef to everyone?
There lies the asli problem.
Migrants are an invisible, unwanted, faceless, nameless mass of people - not just in glamour-struck Mumbai but across India. They belong nowhere. And nobody gives a damn about them. So long as Mumbai's monstrous glass-and-chrome high-rises continue to be built, in and around the upscale BKC (Bandra-Kurla Complex), why bother with minor details, like who exactly is building them? Not robots, for sure. It is these very, hard-working and abjectly poor people from faraway Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal on whose frail backs our glittering Mumbai gets built. And yet, when we saw them being lathi-charged by the police (clearly caught unawares), we cluck-clucked over our socially-conscientious but actively numb WhatsApp groups, shook our lockdown bedheads, and said, "This is too awful, yaar. We are not Gurugram, na?"
No, darlings. We are not Gurugram. We are in a worse metro called Mumbai! Those migrants who started their long walk home and were stopped at the Haryana border still stood a slim chance of making it back to their villages. Slim. But not the Mumbai migrants. They had gathered in formidable numbers based on hope. And fuelled by ignorance. Assured by different and highly unreliable sources, they believed chartered buses and special trains had been arranged to transport them back to distant villages. So they came. And squatted. Till they realized they'd been misled. But wait - the bleeding heart politicians and the administration kicked in a little later. A 'villain' for this outrage had to be quickly located. All of a sudden, our cops were galvanized into action. Bingo! The culprit was found! He had a name and a face. Meet Vinay Dubey - a self-declared labour leader. The wicked man had apparently sent out a clarion cry via an online campaign: "Ghar ki ore chalo". Don't ask me how the migrants got to hear about it - but there they were! Ready to head to their 'ghars'.
Meanwhile, our super-efficient cops, done with wielding lathis on unarmed folks, swiftly apprehended Shri Dubey who was found in Airoli. He is now safely behind bars at the Azad Maidan police chowki. Jai ho! Oh yes, an FIR has also been filed against 800-1,000 nameless people charged with rioting, Not to mention, Section 3 of the 1897 Epidemic Act, also applies. Imagine the absurdity of it all. The Epidemic Act was first put into place in the then Bombay under British India to tackle the Bubonic plague. After all, those unruly, unhygienic natives had to be taught how to behave responsibly, old chap! Just like these migrants!
Well, the migrants of Mumbai are the new natives. And we, their masters. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray lectured them about the lockdown, pointing out that it was different from a 'lock up'. You could've fooled us! Really, Sir? Meanwhile, there were conspiracy theories galore. How come so many of 'these people' had gathered on their own, knowing the risks? Who instigated them? And why were they outside a mosque? Errrr...The mosque happens to be located near the station? Has always been there? A church isn't too far away from the spot, either. Nor, a temple. The word 'sabotage' has been thrown around as well. This response is far more incendiary than the migrants gathering to plead with authorities. Of course, their pleas cannot be entertained right now. But remember, these are desperate times. And the migrants are our most desperate segment.
But, wait...they don't exist! Not even on paper. Today, the situation is beyond grim. No wages. No food. They are saying, "If we have to die of starvation in any case, we'd rather die at home." Politicians using this tragedy to bring the state government down, beware. Getting rid of Uddhav maybe comparatively easy. But it won't solve a thing! How will you get rid of the 'migrant problem'?
The migrants aren't the only ones facing the spectre of death. What happens if more daily-wage workers crowding our dazzling city of gold decide to face a lathi-charge, defy the lockdown and attempt to flee? Phir kya hoga, Kaliya?
(Shobhaa De is an established writer, columnist, opinion shaper and social commentator, who is considered an authority on popular culture.)
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