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Dunki as Pegasus

Colonialism and global neocolonialism might provide the clue but not the solution. When will we cease to be mentally colonized at this unperceived gut level? The answer may lie in education

Sukanta Chaudhuri Published 04.03.24, 07:19 AM
Migrant workers wait for a bus in the West Bay area of Doha, Qatar 

Migrant workers wait for a bus in the West Bay area of Doha, Qatar  Sourced by the Telegraph

Workers from India are trapped on the battle lines between Russia and Ukraine. They are enticed there by contractors to work as ‘army security helpers’, whatever that means, and falsely assured they would not be sent to the warfront. Some may not even be working for the Russian government but for mercenary forces. The promised monthly salary — which may not materialize — exceeds their likely annual income in India.

This is an extreme example of a common pattern. Millions of Indian workers seek temporary employment abroad. Very many work in exploitative or even inhuman conditions, violating local law, natural justice and human rights.


Export of labour is radically dif­ferent from all other exports as the exporters must translocate them­selves. It is easy to overlook that what is being exported is their labour, not the human beings provi­ding it. That would be slavery at worst and indentured labour at best, incompatible with democratic rights. The Indian State must protect those rights while our citizens are abroad earning wealth for the nation.

I do not have the figures (does anyone?), but there is continual anecdotal evidence that they do not always receive such protection, from mass victims like workers in Qatar before the 2022 World Cup to domestic workers tyrannized by our own diplomats. As the last instance, however rare, indicates, the failure to protect has something to do with the ingrained iniquities of our own society. That immemorial exploitation extends to ground-level services at home: a glaring instance is the treatment of ASHA and anganwadi workers. With Indian labourers abroad, an unstated premise seems to be that they are lucky to be there at all, hence must suffer endless trials to earn the promised reward (if they get it).

Thus the humbler Indian workers abroad come to think of their venture as a gamble, inflicting much suffering for uncertain returns. Their rightful status fades into a twilight zone where they get what they can, forgo the rest, and cannot assert their rights, which may be unclear or undivulged to start with. In other words, their status, however legitimized, can come disturbingly close to that of illegal migrants, lured or smuggled abroad to face implacable hostile systems for uncertain gain.

Why do illegal migrants venture on their course? Even a donkey would ask questions before venturing on the dunki trail, to use the term popularized on screen. Why such astronomical demands for money? What about some paperwork? What about the route to be followed? They must know something of what lies ahead. What mental conditioning can outweigh the daunting facts?

Haven’t they heard of the worst-case scenarios — the flight to Nicaragua with 300+ passengers intercepted in Paris? The man who fell to his death while scaling the US-Mexico border wall with his wife and infant son? The family, including a baby, that froze to death on the US-Canada border in the depths of winter or another family that drowned while attempting the same crossing?

Such dramatic disasters may be rare, but the gamut of risks and uncertainties is appalling by any rational judgment. Many victims are well educated: they would easily cross the old threshold of ‘Emigration Check Not Required’. They can put up sums from half to one crore — enough, one would think, for an investment or business venture at home. Many of their families are viable, secure and reasonably affluent — the stable middle class prone to uphold the status quo under any dispensation, certainly the present one. They do not indulge in extreme politics or radical speech. Most are Hindus, so there is no question of religious persecution. They have no cogent reason to seek asylum, though some might do so at a crunch. Basically, they just want to slip past the border.

Very many Indians try to settle abroad by legal means for a better life. That is a rational decision, whatever the merits of each case. They may even decide, wrongly but still rationally, to overstay their visas or adopt some other ‘white-collar’ ploy. To brave the perils of the Canadian winter or the Central American jungles seems little short of insane. One also wonders what they hope to attain if they last the course. Undocumented immigration is a traditional prop of the American dream, but how does it work out in practice, or in more closely administered European states? I do not know; do these desperate migrants?

This is not a case for glib charges against the Indian State. Heaven knows there are enough things wrong with India. Crucial indicators like unemployment, income disparity and educational decline might disturb people planning their own futures and their children’s. But the State amply retains its basic viability, and has secured its place in the world. The nation’s foundational strengths might face long-term threats, but hardly at the immediate panic level where people flee for survival, risking that very survival in the process. Yet nearly 97,000 Indians were caught last year at US borders trying to do just that: who knows how many elsewhere, and how many got away?

At the heart of our vibrant nationhood lurks a seemingly ineradicable, self-destructive discontent. It is part of a malign colonial legacy of self-abasement, especially vis-à-vis the West. Seventy-six years of Independence have not laid the ghost. No ruler over this short period could have spawned such a deep-seated psychosis; but none of them has managed to uproot it either, and the failure becomes more glaring with every passing year. The final resting-place for our dreams and ambitions still lies beyond our borders, an elusive ‘home’ away from home.

Colonialism and global neocolonialism might provide the clue but not the solution. When will we cease to be mentally colonized at this unperceived gut level? The answer may lie in education. I emphatically don’t mean nationalist indoctrination; rather the opposite, free mental development eschewing all politics of location. If we then found things wrong with our country (as we will), we might search for solutions within the country rather than through escape routes that end in disaster.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University

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