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India’s Grim Coronavirus Exodus Has Some Ugly Echoes

Nisid Hajari

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- While many nations see echoes of the 1918 influenza epidemic, or even the medieval Black Death, in their battle against the new coronavirus, India is being reminded of a more modern tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of desperately poor workers and their families have taken to the roads in recent days, fleeing cities for their home villages in a mass migration reminiscent of the 1947 Partition that gave birth to modern India and Pakistan.

The images that began flooding out of India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a three-week “lockdown” of the country starting March 24 have in some ways been as heart-wrenching as newsreel footage from 1947: men and women with feet worn bloody by walking hundreds of miles in brutal heat; children clamoring for food; crowds clinging to the roofs of the few overcrowded buses still running; migrants cowering under the batons of police and, in one appalling case, drenched by  “disinfectant” sprayed on them as if they were livestock. The crisis has drawn the attention of the global media and India’s Supreme Court.

The parallels to Partition, in which as many as 14 million people crossed from one side of the new border to the other and perhaps a million more died, are hardly exact. The numbers today appear to be much smaller. These migrants aren’t fleeing violence and aren’t being attacked by marauding gangs, or other refugees, along the way; there’s no sectarian dimension to the exodus. And this great migration is unlikely to result in any permanent demographic shift: Workers will almost certainly return to cities once the economy revives and the jobs that originally drew them begin to reappear.

The two crises share one key element, however, which leaders today overlooked as cavalierly as the founders of India and Pakistan did in 1947: fear.

Neither Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, nor Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, expected a mass uprooting of populations after the subcontinent was carved into two independent nations. Jinnah intended Pakistan, which then included today’s Bangladesh, simply to encompass those parts of the subcontinent where Muslims were already in a majority; he imagined most of the rest of India’s Muslims, other than some elites who moved to work in the new government or to set up business, would remain in India. Nehru, too, figured the Hindus and Sikhs who found themselves on Pakistan’s side of the border would settle there as full citizens; they were numerous enough that it would have been difficult for Jinnah or any subsequent Pakistani leader to strip them of their rights.

What both governments underestimated was the visceral power of fear. In the year leading up to Partition, Hindu-Muslim riots around the country killed thousands. The violence reached a feverish intensity in Bengal and the Punjab—the two provinces to be divided by the new border—just before it was unveiled. Those with resources began to move their goods and families even before the British relinquished power. The first attacks after independence were specifically targeted at driving minorities, whether Muslims on the Indian side of the border or Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, out of their homes. Their compatriots had every reason to believe that if they stayed, they’d be next.

Those Indians embarking on grueling foot journeys today may not be fleeing sectarian violence, but they have equally legitimate fears—not only of the coronavirus, which has spread quickly in densely populated cities from Wuhan to New York, but more fundamentally of hunger and homelessness. India had more than 40 million migrant workers according to the last census; other estimates put the number closer to 120 million. Many of them live hand-to-mouth; they lack the reserves to wait out a three-week lockdown and the confidence that the government will provide a safety net in the interim.

This challenge isn’t one that better education or enforcement can resolve. It’s pointless to tell people that they’re exposing themselves to disease by joining thousands on the road or mobbing bus depots if their alternative, now that they’ve lost their precarious jobs, is to starve. Putting up roadblocks and beating stragglers will only encourage them to find new routes, off the main highways.

The only way to reverse this exodus is to do what the government should have done from the beginning: Address their vast and entirely predictable insecurity. Only once people are assured of a roof over their heads and food for their children will they heed injunctions to shelter in place. These needs should have been anticipated even before Modi’s lockdown order, with aid directed to the urban poor in particular and a clear system established for assuring shelter and food distribution. Or, as Bangladesh did, the government should have allowed enough time before the lockdown order went into effect to transport those who wanted to go back home. Some have suggested enlisting village governments to test and monitor returnees.

The government is belatedly taking some of these steps, telling the Supreme Court on Tuesday that all migrants had supposedly been cleared off the roads and housed in temporary camps. It had better move fast: In 1947, more refugees may well have died on the roads from disease and hunger than from the massacres that were driving them. Even at a smaller scale, that’s a tragedy India cannot afford to repeat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Nisid Hajari writes editorials on Asia for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor at Newsweek magazine, as well as an editor and writer at Time Asia in Hong Kong. He is the author of “Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.”

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