The first lockdown was marked by silence. In the small corner of sovereign Yalukit-willam country where I now live, nothing much could be heard except the rushing of trees against each other and a distant hum at the opening of the Maribyrnong into the Melbourne port.
I began to take liberties with time, staying awake until birds marked the next morning. In those hours, I started noticing sounds which, in another time, might have made me nostalgic. The heavy drop of bhangra bass shuddering through glass and receding. Delivery trucks running up and down the main street, with Punjabis at the wheel. Sometimes in the early evening, jaunty songs about college friends played into the open air from scooters.
I started to be sparing with my groceries for an excuse to walk to the shops. From the first outing, I noticed a fixture. The intersection was lined with brown men, leaning against their scooters, one or sometimes two insulated bags resting at their feet, some waiting in cars, all intently on their phones. The lockdown revealed in plain sight the submerged geographies of logistics, cleaning, care and service work that kept the economy ticking over – a sleepless network of Black and brown bodies that continued to do all the work.
I walked past a keshdari man, young enough that a t-shirt and sandals seemed a good idea in the rain, calling up his mother. ‘Hanji ma,’ or ‘yes ma’ he said, as if she had called him. They exchanged pleasantries. He kept one eye on a second phone. She must have asked how he was doing because he said, in that impervious way, ‘chalda peya,’ or ‘it’s going’ – there was still work, the college was closed but they were still demanding fees.
He asked her what they were doing for food, to which she seemed to say ‘munde uparon de dinde ne.’ The boys hand it down from above. My mind went to the closely crowded, open-landscaped kothis in the town where I was born, where life was so crowded that you had to look in all four directions while bathing, lest a neighbour walk past overhead. I imagined boys standing on the eaves, lowering down parcels of supplies, house by house. I remembered the ventilation so shared that, when our neighbour started dinner, my aunty would complement her recipe.
Noticing something on the second phone, he hurried to get off the call. He ended with the standard inquiry, ‘saare jaane thik ne?’ Is everyone fine? To which I imagined she responded, ‘we are fine.’
South Asian labour was conscripted early in the colonial foray into First Nations lands. Cameleers hailing from the vast undivided expanse of what became India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are thought to feature first. But decades earlier, as convict transportation ceased in the 1830s, settlers in New South Wales turned eagerly to the surplus populations in India for an answer to their labour woes.
In 1836, colonist John Mackay – whose namesake town now straddles Yuibera country in the north – petitioned the colonial government to permit importation of ‘Hill Coolies’ from India. Mackay had previously made his fortune in indigo plantations in Bengal before happening upon new ventures in New South Wales. The precise identity of the ‘Hill Coolies’ remains unknown – Mackay’s accounts widely describe the qualities of labourers from the mountainous regions of Jharkhand through to the flatlands of Punjab. The ensuing debates, particularly the protectionists’ insistence on the inferiority and tractability of oriental labour, are thought to provide the early preface to what became the White Australia Policy.
Mackay’s proposal was to import Indian peasant labourers, with government assistance, to work on five-year contracts of indenture on farms and pastures on New South Wales. While hundreds of settlers joined Mackay’s call, they were met with opposition from a fledgling abolitionist movement that viewed indenture as slavery by another form. Underwriting abolitionist accounts was an ahistorical view of Indian labourers as mere vassals beset by poverty and bound to undermine the conditions of free British settlers. George Thompson, reformer and abolitionist, put it thus:
Look at his ignorance; he was ignorant of the character of those by whom he was first engaged; he was ignorant of the geography and knew not the position nor the relation of the country to which he would be sent; he was ignorant of the elements and considerations which constituted a fair and equitable bargain; he was ignorant still more of the character of those by whom he was to be employed; he knew nothing of their avarice, their subtlety, their love of power, their past treatment of coloured slaves, and the means which they possessed, through common interests and close combination, of setting aside and rendering nugatory the most important clauses in the paper contract which had been mutually signed in India.
Missing from settler and abolitionist accounts was any mention of the role played by the East India company in the decimation of peasant lives and livelihoods in India. The enclosure of communal lands, the institution of cash crops for export to colonial markets, and over-farming leading to disastrous famines were just some of the conditions that necessitated migration as a means of survival. A colonial mindset dictated the myopic limits of the debate on either side.
Having lost his bid for Crown support, Mackay persisted in importing 37 workers, including a six-year-old child, in 1837. Months later the workers absconded and, on being discovered days later by police, instituted a legal case against Mackay for underpayment.
In February, immediately before Australia’s lockdown, India was ablaze in protest. After their electoral sweep in May 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Home Minister Amit Shah, both former members of the Hindu fascist Rashtriya Swamyasevak Sangh (RSS), set upon a course to advance the settler colonial annexation of Kashmir and destabilise the citizenship of the country’s Muslim residents, creating a displaced population within the country’s own bounds.
Their first task was to enforce the RSS’ article of faith – the re-integration of Kashmir into India, by force, through the revocation of its protected status under Article 370 of the Constitution. Kashmir was made a union territory, centrally administered by the federal government, stripped of its independent legislature and right to control landholdings. A further 35,000 troops were deployed to the region, which was already the most militarised on the planet.
This was followed by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (or CAA), which allowed for the naturalisation of displaced people in India who were Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian – in other words, not Muslim. A National Register of Citizens (NRC) was introduced, requiring evidence of birth to access citizenship. As the example of Assam showed, circular migration in border states made it impossible for the poorest families, mostly Muslim, to provide the documents needed to register. Coupled with the CAA, the NRC had the effect of stripping citizenship from Muslim people who had known no other home than India.
During the height of protests against the CAA and NRC, Narendra Modi appeared on television on the evening of 12 May, an apparition in khadi, to announce a full lockdown of the country, effective within four hours of the broadcast. That night, tens of millions of migrant workers began to flow out of major cities towards their homes – proceeding on foot after public transport networks shut down.
As Asam Ali notes, it is likely that the majority of migrant workers were Muslims seeking to flee the insecurity of urban capitals and return to the safety of home as the lockdown spread; more than 50 percent of Muslims in India are employed in the informal sector, compared with 33 percent of Hindus. Like everywhere else, migrant workers predominated in ‘essential’ sectors – doing the service, domestic, construction and care work upon which India’s metropolises had come to depend. As they escaped from chaotic cities, travelling workers were beset by police, doused in toxic chemicals and blamed by their communities for importing the virus. As sectarian fires raged, the Modi government quietly marked the one-year anniversary of Kashmir’s annexation, amending domicile requirements related to land ownership to pave the way for demographic integration of the region.
Speaking at a rally on Wurundjeri country last year, an organiser from Gurudwara Miri Piri declared to a thronging crowd, ‘Yaad rakho – Kashmir da rasta Punjab rahi jaanda.’ Remember – the road to Kashmir runs through Punjab.
Remember – the routes of colonial dispossession, annexation and despair run long. So too do our memories.
By July, the only people I know who have COVID-19 in Australia are on temporary visas. A friend who lives in a house of six tells me he got it from his housemate, who used to work overnight shifts, cleaning trains when they came to rest in a yard outside the Docklands. He’d taken double shifts, because there was extra work, and he didn’t know when it would dry up, or who would support him when it did.
I call a friend of mine who was born, like me, in an arterial passageway for military goods and personnel, in the mountainous belt dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now an Australian citizen. In April, when the city came to a halt, he and some friends who had been driving Ubers decided to band together and get a security contract. In order to contend with rushes of people panic buying, major retailers hired private security to create the optics of cleanliness and order. He managed to secure a couple of contracts around Broadmeadows. When he went out for a smoke, my friend would look upon a car park laced through with Pakistani men, ten years younger than him, pushing lines of trolleys in the rain. ‘See how far I’ve come?’ he said, joking in his way, wanting to impress on me that in some parts of the world, nothing moves, nothing changes.
By August, biostatistical maps of Melbourne mark a colour line. Suburbs with the highest incidence of the virus are those with the densest migrant populations and the highest percentage of people in casual or informal work. Mirror statistics from Canada show that lockdown measures tend to reduce COVID-19 rates only in some parts of the community, with rates of transmission amongst migrant communities increasing as time went on, despite the measures. Each day, the Premier appears on television to moralise about ‘rule breakers’ while colleges and universities continue to demand their fees, visas continue to be contingent on work, and rents continue to be paid without an iota of government support.
I was asked to write a piece reflecting on a borderless future. From where we stand, that dystopian time may be upon us. It is not impossible to imagine a future in which subjugated labour is free to move across borders, subject to heightened biopolitical management, and free to toil on roads, farms and factories while citizens remain cloistered in their homes. Recall that the Indian state, in its largesse, permitted migrant labourers to remain at large and traverse into any territory they wished to continue their work – provided they did not return home. After all, the function of the border is not necessarily to exclude but to modulate and redirect movement, turning it into value; to commodify movement, in the interests of capital and the state.
Struggles for migrant workers’ rights cannot take place within the bounds of the state, or on the terms set by the state. These struggles cannot be collapsed into a freedom to engage in precisely the same form of subjugated, underpaid ‘essential work’ ad infinitum. They must involve a renegotiation of the entire historical trajectory through which work comes to be done on certain conditions and by certain people. Anything less would be, to channel the sentiments of farm workers in Italy, an amnesty for products, not for people.