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What A Train Ride From Kerala To Assam Taught Me About Our Bias Against Migrant Workers

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The journey from Kerala to Guwahati had always been eventful for me. This time, it was the mid-semester vacation, the train was Vivek Express and I was travelling alone for the first time. The train is usually filled with migrant labourers from Assam, Bengal, and Odisha. Whenever I get into these trains, I think about the ways in which we deal with these workers coming from afar. There is the stereotypical fear about them looting or maybe behaving badly with us.

There were many passengers who got into the train from my station. “Because of these uncultured Bengali dogs, we never get a seat,” wailed a young security personnel who got into the train. I wondered how easily we could define ourselves as cultured and them as ‘dogs’. How easily the cataloguing was done. How easily we were ‘us’ and them the ‘other’.

The sleeper coaches of these trains are usually very suffocating. Since there are just two direct trains in a week from Kerala to Guwahati, these are usually stuffed. Indian railways seem to pay very little attention to these trains. The toilets have broken doors and compartments are overstuffed. People sit on every inch possible. Somehow, I managed to get into my seat, only to find out that it was already occupied. I was the only girl in the whole compartment and it seemed a bit strange and scary with all the unfamiliar faces. I poked the guy who was sleeping there; I thought he looked like someone from north-east. He was young. I shouted at him, maybe to prove to myself and to others out there (who were sleeping) that I am brave and that they better not mess with me. He went to the upper berth where his friend was sleeping.

The next day, I woke up quite late in the morning to find almost everyone awake. The guy who I scolded the previous night and two of his friends were waiting for me to get up so that they could sit. I brushed, cleaned myself and came back. The three had already brought tea for me and that was the beginning of a friendship.

Sitting opposite my seat were three labourers from New Jaipalguri. Two young men and an old, mature looking man named Ranjo da. I got to talking with them and found out about their working conditions and salary. Most of them came from an agriculture background. They have huge debts, and Kerala offers them a much stable and better working condition than home, he told me. He was working in the construction sector. There are many contractors who bring them to Kerala in large numbers and then the process just continues. “This is the first time in two years that I am travelling back,” he said.

On the side berth was Ajmal from Assam. A middle-aged man with a long beard, he was working in the fish market in Alleppey. He works from morning till afternoon, he said, and is paid around 1000 rupees a day. And he has his own puri stand that he sets up from the evening. Although everything seems to be really good from one side, the stories they shared were quite sad. The living conditions for most of them were pathetic. Many had to live in the half-constructed buildings and diseases spread easily. They also had complaints about how the locals treat them, how they are often accused for minor thefts and how people around always give them strange looks while travelling.

Ranjo da also narrated the story of a young man from Bihar who had a serious injury and was sent back without any compensation by the company. Due to illiteracy and lack of awareness and fear of the owners they never complain. The irony here is that according to the report of National Sample Survey Organisation, Kerala is one of the states with the highest unemployment and it is to the same state that a heavy flow of other states’ labourers happens.

When I shared these ideas with a friend of mine, he countered with a question which he considered to be very relevant. Why should they complain when they are paid around 1000 rupees per day? He was unable to understand what I wanted to convey. I wasn’t merely talking about their economic status here. My question was very simple: Are they treated as human beings? Do we show compassion and consideration towards them?

It is in the same Keralite society where everyone considers themselves to be literate and sensible that a migrant labourer from Assam was lynched. It is here that migrant labourers were the first to be suspected to be the culprits behind the rape and murder of a Dalit girl. They might be guilty, but it says something about our attitude. I was too afraid to dwell on the details of such cases fearing that they might turn out to be related to my co-passenger friends. They weren’t complaining about their wage. But they had complaints about their treatment as fellow beings. Somewhere, these people reminded me of what Michael Sandel said about the market society, wherein everything is out for sale. It is more like business ruling over relations and everyone becoming commodities. Even compassion seems to be out for sale.

The journey was one of an introspection of the self. I thought of the way I was afraid on seeing them, how easily I judged them. But then, when I started talking, how the fear vanished, how the compassion came, how easily was I able to relate to them, their worries and how their tragedies became my personal tragedies. It was no more ‘them’ speaking, but ‘us’. And it was beautiful.

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  1. thesteelguy

    “Just goes on to show how racist these Bengali buggers themselves are. God forbid if someone clump them with “migrant workers” and “peasant dogs”, titles that previously Bengalis had conveniently reserved for Biharis. For at least 100 years Bengalis had been throwing ethnic slurs against Biharis. Part of British Bengal, Bengalis back then were relatively better off than Biharis because of the obvious relative advantage of being the seat of the British capital in India. Evidence of Bengalis exploiting Biharis and hurling racist profanities and looking at them with an air of inferiority is found in the numeroud plays of Bhojpuri playwright Bhikhari Thakur. A name Bhikhari used for himself because of the common perception of Biharis in Kolkata in the beginning of the 20th century. As early as 19th century Bengalis had colluded with the British, the Dutch and the French to lure Bihari labours into working in slave like conditions of indenture plantations. The people of Bihar were first told tall tales of prosperity by Bengali employed middle men, of prosperity in distant islands of Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji etc. Then they were shipped as human cargo to Imperial powers that used Biharis to replace dissenting African slaves in plantations. The conditions were equally gruelling if not more.
    While Bihar remained a part of Bengal, Bengalis used to bully out educated Biharis from taking up jobs under the British government. Effectively telling the British that Biharis are a useless Human capital. Or otherwise using family members in high places to kick our Biharis from British generated jobs, in an otherwise deeply impoverished Bihar. Bengalis effectively ruled the Bihar part of Bengal Presidency and racism against Biharis was rampant from Bengalis. This was one of the most prominent reasons why Bihar separated from Bengal while the British were still around.
    Today the word for “outsider” or “migrant worker” continues to be “Bihadi” in Kolkata. Ask a common Bengali that has grown up in Kolkata, about his/her views on Biharis, and after two drinks the truth will start pouring out. This was even prevalent among the heroes of the Proletariat Bengali Communists too. God forbid if a Bihari was to rise up in their cadre ranks. What would a member of an inferior race know about the grand ideals of Socialism anyway?
    Then Bengalis allowed Communism to ruin their partitioned land. And by 1970s the Bengali economy was like a bloated dead body, floating on a pool of murky waters. No longer were jobs available for the Bengali impoverished in Bengal itself. Culturally too Bengalis don’t like straying too far away from home. Talk about a “useless human capital”! However now they were on the same boat as the Biharis. But their superiority complex remained intact. Even as Gherao after Gherao wrecked Bengali economy further.
    Still the Bihari economy due to a series of British experiments and then Nehruvian Socialism, had completely collapsed by the 80s so Biharis started a mass exodus everywhere. Surprisingly Biharis wanted to work in Bengal only as a last resort despite of the fact that Bengal was the immediate neighbour of Bihar. Wonder how that happened eh? smile emoticon.
    And now the world has come a full circle as their Commie brethren in Kerala have started calling Bengalis “dogs”. I wonder what would be going through the mind of this author when she was writing this. Is she unaware of the Bengali legacy of racism? Or were her thoughts more to the tune of “How dare they call us dogs? It was a title we keep reserved for Bihadis.” Congratulations now you know what it feels like to be like us.”

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