Imaging the Migrant Crisis

The singularly defining image of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has been that of  bands of migrants trudging across the length and breadth of the country to reach their homes in rural hinterlands. India’s migrants account for much of its urban population. They are that nameless body of people who earn less than 2 dollars a day, working in menial, often seasonal, jobs that are essential to the sustenance of its cities. While nameless for statistical agencies, they are largely populated by Dalits and Muslims, climate refugees, and displaced indigenous communities, who are stuffed into urban slums to eke out a precarious living. When the pandemic was acknowledged by the Indian government and total lockdown was enforced in a matter of hours, India was confronted on one hand with the government’s evident reluctance to provide food, shelter and relief to the migrants, and on the other by the reality of millions of migrant workers desperate to go back to their villages. Since all transportation was suspended, many decided to walk thousands of miles in India’s tropical heat (during its hottest months, April-May). An image that exhumed the Indian subcontinent’s traumatic partition – when millions were displaced overnight and encountered a similar fate. While these millions slogged back home with their meagre possessions and kids in tow, there was the recurring spectacle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appearing on TV, reassuring a middle-class population bound to their TV in the drawing room that India was ready for a relentless war against the virus. In Siddhesh Gautam/BakeryPrasad’s widely circulated illustration, these two realities are juxtaposed against each other with the caption “ignore the background.” For India’s mainstream media conglomerates close to the ruling BJP, it is as if the toiling millions walking for days on end (and often dying on the road) never existed. They dutifully parroted Modi’s rhetoric, steered public attention according to their political masters.