The creation of a new class called the migrants makes us forget that they are people and all rules that apply to people, apply to them as well. Many ask, "Why are the migrants leaving? Why can't they be persuaded to stay? Surely, they would stay if food was actually being provided?" and so on.
Passengers wait for their train at New Delhi Railway Station.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, "migrant" and "migration" were emotionally-neutral words used to describe Indians who have moved their residence from one part of the country to another, temporarily or permanently. Now, with due respect to the media and to the wise people who speak on behalf of them, the word "migrant" has acquired an emotional charge, value judgement and social stereotyping, and a new slice of society called "the migrants" has been consecrated.
"The migrants" is now shorthand for a people who are poor, homeless, hungry, neglected by the states and Centre, usually from two or three of the poorest states and, most of all, who do not qualify for belonging to the city where they work. No one thinks of software folks who come from all over the country to the electronic city in Bengaluru in search of work as migrants, even though they too qualify for the "migrant" label. By the way, what do we call an upper-class person who visits parents and siblings in Andhra Pradesh for a few months of the year, lives mostly in Maharashtra and goes to Gujarat for work at certain times of the year? That's me, but no one has referred to me as "one of the migrants".
In today's context, "migrant" has become a label that declares someone as a perpetual outsider, despite having crossed no national boundaries, and despite Indians having the right to live wherever they want without any need for any permission or registration. The government of Kerala, in a move much lauded by many, has called them "guest workers". Guests are those who come to my house and will stay or go at my pleasure and enjoy privileges based on my levels of hospitality. How can an Indian state government classify Indians from other states as guests?
Some of us may remember the ugliness of the 1960s and '70s when the Shiv Sena said that South Indians didn't belong in Maharashtra. With our new, thoughtless use of the collective noun, "the migrants", to describe people who leave Mumbai — when in trouble — to return to their immediate or extended families, we are rekindling that same flame again: The risky "insider-outsider" narrative for Indians within India.
Of course, many of us have a "home state". It defines, often not always, my ethnic and cultural identity (not the same as my national identity), what I eat, what my mother tongue is, how I drape my sari, my religious and social customs. But it does not define my limits of belonging to any part of the country I choose.
The creation of a new class called the migrants makes us forget that they are people and all rules that apply to people, apply to them as well. Many ask, "Why are the migrants leaving? Why can't they be persuaded to stay? Surely, they would stay if food was actually being provided?" and so on. The fact is, they are going to their other home for pretty much the same reason many upper-class kids are back from their colleges abroad to be with their families, or, why company executives may choose to relocate to their parents' homes if they lose their jobs in Mumbai or Delhi and find the rents prohibitive. Because life at the other home may be safer and better than in a city where work has dried up, the living conditions are abysmal, and the risk of dying high.
So let's replace the label starting now. "Casual-wage-labour" or "multi-state residents" would be a less dangerous, more specific label — a category, rather than a class or caste. Diaspora is a better collective noun than migrants.
But Hindi serves the purpose so much better — shramik means workers, labour or "the working class". While this categorisation does signal socioeconomic-occupational hierarchy, it doesn't signal "insider-outsider". If we must use the migration word, "pravasi" is better: It has been infused with dignity and glory thanks to "pravasi bharatiya divas". Or, even OCI (other state citizen of India) will do.
This article first appeared in print edition on June 5 under the title "Names And Labels". Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only and A Never-before World: Tracking the evolution of Consumer India.