In Indian migrant workers' long, brutal march, echoes of Mexican migrants' trek through Sonoran Desert to reach US

Jason De Leon’s imagery of Mexican migrants finds an eerie resemblance in what informal migrant labourers are facing during the lockdown in India due to the coronavirus pandemic, when many started walking back home traversing thousands of kilometers.

Bhargabi Das May 15, 2020 19:18:01 IST
In Indian migrant workers' long, brutal march, echoes of Mexican migrants' trek through Sonoran Desert to reach US

In his book The Land of the Open Graves, Jason De Leon shows how due to the US federal enforcement strategy of ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ (PTD) in the mid-1990s, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Mexico had to illegally cross the border in Arizona by traversing the long and extremely hostile Sonoran Desert on foot. Security was increased along several other popular points of illegal crossing-over, such that the migrants had no other choice but to take the dangerous, long journey through the desert. De Leon’s imagery and narrative find an eerie resemblance to what informal migrant labourers are facing during the lockdown in India due to the coronavirus pandemic, when many started walking back home traversing thousands of kilometers. This somber comparison highlights broader questions regarding our understanding of violence, migrant bodies and citizenship.

State and its collaborators

On 24 March 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s first 21-day lockdown, to curb the rapid spread of the coronavirus, there were several disruptions in people’s lives. Work had stopped and with no detailed plan to feed the poor or provide any kind of relief to people who survive hand-to-mouth, there was absolute chaos, particularly for the poor. Migrant workers, who in light of their employment in the informal sector stayed far away from their homes, now were in utter despair: there was no work, only hunger. With all transport t standstill, in a bid to save themselves, thousands started walking for as long as 500-700 km — often with small children — to reach their home-towns/villages, meet their families, and avoid succumbing to hunger. They were not provided with food/water/masks/medicines by the state in their long, arduous journeys even. According to a News18 report, 42 migrants died while walking back home and another 16 migrants were killed by a train when they fell asleep on a railway track because they were exhausted with their long march and thought they could get a few hours of rest if trains weren’t plying the line.

In Indian migrant workers long brutal march echoes of Mexican migrants trek through Sonoran Desert to reach US

Migrant workers walk home during the coronavirus-related lockdown in India. AP/File Photo

The informal migrant labourer in India is akin to De Leon’s ‘illegal’ immigrant from Mexico; just like the US government’s decision to strategically funnel the ‘illegal’ immigrants to the Sonoran Desert by beefing up security on other crossing points, the informal migrant labourers too were strategically funneled by the state to either start walking or else die. Just like the ‘illegal’ immigrants of Mexico, wherein the state did not actively intrude to stop their illegal movement, the Indian State too with the lockdown announcement and no relief/aid of any kind provided to them did not really ask them to walk back home but also left them with no other option but engage in such a dangerous act to save their lives.

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The Sonoran Desert — a vast and hostile terrain with high temperatures, no edible vegetation and possibility of deadly diseases — is a suicide mission for migrants. The several days long journey with little water and food, on foot, is reminiscent of the predicament of the Indian migrant labourers. The concrete roads — which otherwise can be symbolic of a nation’s progress and economic growth — turned into an ‘Open Graveyard’ (to borrow De Leon’s book title), akin to the inhospitable terrain of Sonoran Desert.

De Leon in fact underlines that the ecologically hostile terrain of the desert and the anti-immigrant State worked in collaboration to not just deter illegal immigration but also cause immigrant death. The desert partly did the state’s job of eliminating or deterring the ‘illegal’ immigrants. In the case of Indian migrant workers too, the concrete roads in the lockdown with their never ending kilometers and no transport, obnoxiously high temperatures and no food/water providers (even street vendors could not ply their trade), helped the state in its narrative of passively taking an aggressive stand on non-movement. These roads were as much a deterrent for the poor in undertaking movement, as desired by the State.

State-made infrastructures such as roads added up to what can be called ‘infrastructural violence’. Just as a desert has conditions dangerous for human existence, concrete roads of tar in high temperatures are not meant for human walking for a long time and definitely not without the necessary equipment (walking shoes, lighter bags, sufficient food/water, etc.) which of course the poor migrants could not afford. Photos of migrants on the move in the roads with blistered feet, filthy bandages, sweaty clothes, plastic bottles of water, sleeping under trees/on the streets bear a clear resemblance to De Leon’s photographs of migrants from Mexico on their journeys through the Sonoran Desert.

States in collaboration with non-humans (infrastructure in this case) can control bodies, lives and determine death. Achille Mbembe writes about ‘Necropolitics’ — states’ deep interest in death, deciding who gets to live or die. Hence, one should not be surprised when the Indian government suspends three IRS (Indian Revenue Services) officers after they allegedly suggested an income tax hike for the super-rich to boost the Indian economy, whereas the State did not bat an eyelid when it saw thousands poor migrants walking back home.

State of exception

The concept of ‘State of exception’ as used by Giorgio Agamben indicates the processes through which sovereign authorities declare emergencies in order to suspend legal protection afforded to individuals, while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them. Physical spaces are critical in understanding the execution of such ruthless state power and Agamben highlights the concentration camp to show how certain spaces exist outside the normal state or moral law. Similarly De Leon shows how border areas are spaces of exception as well wherein all sorts of legal protections are kept aside and state power can be brutally felt upon migrant bodies illegally entering into sovereign territory.

In a pandemic, one can argue that the entire national territory is living in a state of exception. New rules that were unheard of before, and in such magnitude, are put in place. The State is deciding who, where and how one gets to move. Amid restrictions, there is the suspension of daily life as we know it. Hence individuals could face embarrassing and hardened police brutality simply by stepping on the road and no legal measures could be undertaken against them. In fact this erosion of citizenship rights is cheered and desired. The human body has become a very visible site of state control, with the division of the entire country into varied zones such that bodies of one zone are under greater surveillance or stigma over another.

But what sets apart the concentration camp and the US-Mexican border is that in such spaces of exception, individuals are reduced to ‘bare lives’. It is this which makes states of exception extremely brutal and violent. And in this pandemic where national territories are sites of exception, in the case of India, it is the informal, poor, migrant labourers who have been reduced to ‘bare lives’.

The idea of individuals being reduced to ‘bare lives’ is extremely violent because even in a bio-political state where living bodies are important (for it is here the state exercises control), migrant living bodies are not even felt worthy to be saved or surveilled upon. Just like the Jews in a concentration camp or Mexican migrants illegally crossing over the American border, the poor, informal migrant labourers in India are disposable bodies whose deaths are not important enough to be cared for by either the state or society. Unlike in the concentration camp or in the Sonoran Desert or at the borders, where deaths are ‘out of sight’ from the general public and hence can only be imagined, here the deaths of informal poor migrant labourers are happening ‘out in the open’, on the roads and railway tracks. So although every one of us is living in a state of exception, the upper caste, upper/middle class public is still not reduced to ‘bare lives’. The dignity attached to one’s biological life is still not stripped away, unlike the migrant labourers.

Violence of the included

Unlike De Leon’s ‘illegal’ immigrants upon whom the state has unleashed such brutal violence, the informal migrant labourers facing such violence are India’s citizens. Even for Agamben, in states of exception, particularly in the concentration camps too, the Jews were legally excluded first, stripping them of their citizenship and only then did they suffer unimaginable violence. But violence on the poor has been normalised in our everyday lives. Poor people have died out of hunger, lack of access to basic health facilities etc. in lakhs in our country, but these deaths do not create a hullabaloo unlike deaths in a pandemic.

Akhil Gupta writes in his seminal work Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India: “The paradox of violence of poverty in India is that the poor are killed despite their inclusion in projects of national sovereignty and despite their centrality to democratic politics and state legitimacy.” So the poor in India and in this case the informal migrant labourers are included and yet passively allowed to die. The death of the poor in this country is so regular that it has become banal for both state and society. It no longer shocks us and this narrative has been well constructed by the state over decades now.  So our absolute non-shock over thousands of poor informal migrant labourers walking back home, many with children and some dying on the way, is a part of this indifference cultivated over decades and generations for the poor.

Gupta uses Agamben’s figure of the ‘homo sacer’ who he says is one that is both inside and outside the law, who can be killed but whose killing violates no law or legitimacy of the sovereign. The poor in India are a perfect example of this considering they can be killed without their killing being considered a sacrifice. The state in India has generated a number of welfare schemes for the poor and yet it structurally excludes them too. This paradox of belonging and the production of the ‘bare life’ is what concerns Gupta largely.

I would say that the poor are made to feel included in the national community simply because they are an intrinsic part of the economy, providing cheap, consistent labour while also contributing to a reserved army of labour. Besides, they are critical for the legitimacy and power grabbing of populist parties — they are a critical ‘vote bank’. That an event such as a pandemic strikes India and poor informal migrant labourers who have incessantly provided critical labour and votes for the economy and a democratic state to exist, are left with no other option but walk hundreds of kilometers with little or no food and water should really make us question the nature of citizenship in India. If citizenship is based on a rights-having and claiming narrative, are poor, migrant bodies citizens after all?

The poor, just like any other oppressed section, have the onus of engaging in ‘interpretive labour’, meaning they are the ones who not only have to think about themselves but also think about the non-poor or the non-oppressed. This was clearly visible during demonetisation in India when poor farmers, informal workers and small traders were seen happily ‘sacrificing’ for the sake of ‘fighting corruption’ and bringing back black money for the nation’s growth. Or during the ongoing pandemic when 100 workers in a tea-garden in Assam volunteered to clean up the plantation, which was lying neglected during the lockdown in India, free of cost, showing their ‘gratitude’ and to help the management reduce losses during this crisis. So can one argue the poor are ‘demi-citizens’, who only matter when elections are close?

In fact the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) project in India is an anti-poor project as revealed by the completion of the NRC process in Assam. For it is the poor who face structural hindrances in acquiring the necessary documents. It is the poor again who face the brunt of ‘proving’ their citizenship and as shown in Assam often lose out and then are legally stripped of their citizenship status. The images of poor informal migrant workers walking back home and the sheer indifference of the society and state should be seen in continuum with this narrative.



Agamben, G. 2005. State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Leon, J. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press.

Gupta, A. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Mbembe, A. 2003. Necropolitics. Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

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