The caste and class privileges of a handful of people, vis-a-vis millions of oppressed, marginalised and exploited masses, couldn’t be seen so prominently in India as during the present Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and the subsequent lockdown. On Friday, April 17th, the Uttar Pradesh government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sent 250 buses to rescue around 7,500 students from Rajasthan’s coaching hub Kota. These students were stranded there in hostels since the beginning of the lockdown. There are around 8,000 students from Uttar Pradesh in Kota and the state government has assured the Kota district administration that it will send more buses to rescue them. Such a generous measure by Yogi Adityanath’s regime is appreciated by the parents but has also raised a lot of inconvenient questions for the BJP and the chief minister.
When the lockdown was initially announced for a period of 21 days by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24th evening, millions of migrant workers who belong to Uttar Pradesh found themselves stranded in different metro cities where they work. Thousands of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, most of whom worked as daily wagers, in the capital New Delhi and its neighbourhood, thronged the Anand Vihar Inter-State Bus Terminus in a frantic attempt to catch a bus back to their native places, carrying both their children and their household goods on their shoulders, to escape from an imminent starvation death.
To ferry thousands of stranded men, women and children, from Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr, Noida, Aligarh, etc, Adityanath’s government allocated only 1,000 buses. Thousands herded into these few buses, tossing away health concerns and “social distancing” norms, but they were shocked when they were charged double or up to four times the fare for the journey. Though Adityanath claimed it will be a free bus service, the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation or UPSRTC charged anything between Rs 300 to Rs 1,000 for tickets from these people mired in sheer financial crisis due to loss of their livelihoods. Those, who couldn’t cough up the money, were deboarded midway.
Due to such an ordeal, thousands had to walk for hundreds of miles to reach their native places, only to be fogged with toxic chemicals on the road by the zealot government officials, who claimed that they were sanitising these migrant workers. Around 22 people, including children, died on the way while walking to their native villages. The controversial bus service was later withdrawn and the migrant workers were left with no choice but to walk all their way to their villages.
Was there no way to provide them with a comfortable journey home, not only from Delhi but from all over the country? Yes, facts show that not only they could have been transported by the government easily to their homes, but at the same time many of them could have been provided free accommodation with free food and medical support by the Modi regime or Adityanath regime in different cities. But then why the Adityanath regime rescued only the students by deploying 250 buses on a war footing? Why isn’t it providing similar facilities to the migrant workers as well?
Kota is a coaching hub for engineering entrance examination aspirants. Mostly, students from upper-caste Hindu elite and middle class families study in numerous coaching centres that promise them a ticket to the premier Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Kota exists as a coaching hub, as a ticket counter for the upper-caste elites and middle class wards because of their hatred towards the “quota” system that provides reservation to dalits and tribals in higher education institutions. Though a minuscule percentage of the dalits and tribals makes it to graduation, still, the upper-caste Hindu elites and middle class oppose the constitutional mechanism that offers these ostracised and oppressed communities an opportunity to study equally, albeit on paper.
Sheer insecurity, bigotry and taking pride in caste discrimination and hegemony, make these parents force their wards to toe their line and choose a career that’s decided without their consent. With no democratic rights and scope to take independent steps, these students enter the rat race that manufacture bigots out of them as well. This is a reason why Kota is closely connected with the upper-caste Hindu elites and middle class, who send their wards to the city with a hope of getting them into the IITs, while they themselves leave no stone unturned to oppose public education, government subsidies in higher education and the constitution-guaranteed reservation for the ostracised and oppressed communities.
No wonder, these are the people who form the BJP’s core voter base. It’s a reason that soon after a video, made by a stranded student who claimed that 50,000 students are stranded in Kota from different states, went viral, Adityanath didn’t waste time and sent the fleet of buses to rescue the students. It’s indeed a good gesture as the students need to be back home but at the same time, it exhibits the class priorities of the BJP. It shows how expendable are the poorest of the poor who are dying due to starvation, which is a more threatening epidemic than COVID-19.
It’s not only these students stranded in Kota who got favours from the BJP, but even 1,800 upper-caste Hindu pilgrims from Modi’s Gujarat were also rescued in 28 buses from BJP-ruled Uttarakhand, where they were reportedly “stranded” in the corporate-controlled press’s parlance vis-a-vis the Muslims “hiding” in mosques and madrassas. BJP-ruled Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have fared the worst in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there was no hullaballoo in the press over the ferrying of these 1,800 people from Uttarakhand. The BJP ignored thousands of migrant workers in Surat who have been repeatedly demanding an opportunity to their native state Odisha. No buses were arranged for these stranded workers, probably because they are poorer than pilgrims.
When on Sunday, April 19th, Modi published a blog, he emphasised on making “work from home” a mainstream thing and spoke about how people should manage work-life balance, he was clearly addressing his core voter base and not millions of Indians, the majority of Indians, ie, the working class – including the migrant labourers – and the small and marginal farmers who can’t work from home ever. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued revised guidelines on April 19th as well, which gave permission to the limited movement of migrant workers within one state but prohibited inter-state travel. Which means, while students, who come from class and caste groups known for importing COVID-19 infection from foreign countries, are allowed transportation across the country, the migrant workers who want to avoid starvation death, are punished.
If the BJP is clearly showing its class bias repeatedly and treating the migrant labourers with sheer contempt, then it’s also the responsibility of the working class to not only treat the BJP with contempt but to also ensure it’s uprooted from the areas wherever the working class and farmers exist. Many migrant workers and the urban lumpen proletariat class form the Hindutva fascism’s foot soldiers. They are the frontline soldiers and a large number of them are affiliated with Hindutva fascism due to their class and caste compulsions. It’s imperative at this moment for those anti-fascists and progressives working among the workers and farmers to politically awaken them with class consciousness and repeatedly show them whose interests are served by the Modi regime. The Kota students can feel safe at home, but the Modi regime and the BJP shouldn’t feel safe among the poorest, the exploited and marginalised people ever.