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Turning migrant labour into mercenaries

Let them build the topless towers of the world, not kill strangers for money in conflict zones

Turning migrant labour into mercenaries

Towering success: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa lit up in the hues of the Tricolour during PM Modi’s UAE visit. Those who built the shining cities of the Gulf were mostly Indians who had no stake in what they were building. AP/PTI

Rajesh Ramachandran

AN image or video of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai makes one rephrase Marlowe’s lines in Doctor Faustus: “Are these the hands that launched a thousand ships and built the topless towers of Ilium?” Well, the salutations are not for the beauty or the wonder that is the tallest tower in the world, but for the brawn of the Brown people — the Indian migrant labour. There is an excellent novel by Deepak Unnikrishnan, the son of a migrant in the United Arab Emirates, titled Temporary People, which won many accolades a few years ago. The only things common about those who built the shining cities of the Persian Gulf are that they were all temporary people who had no stake in what they were building, and that they were mostly Indians.

Indians cannot be forced to wear a foreign army’s uniform, and that is non-negotiable.

Masons from Kerala, carpenters from Punjab, brick-layers from Uttar Pradesh or crane operators from Maharashtra — in varying degrees, every state of the country contributed to turning the deserts of West Asia into bustling metropolises. Of course, the workers, in turn, pulled their families out of poverty, bringing relative prosperity to their home states. But there was no alarm even when a few of them were duped or trafficked because this unregulated trade in human labour largely benefited the workers, their families and their home states (like Kerala, which depends on Gulf remittances for survival).

The stories of migration to the West are no different. Though they were not temporary people and that they could become citizens and even lawmakers and sit on the benches that once ruled India, the story of their industry, integrity and upward mobility is similar. Thus, migration is one of the easiest and surest ways of uplifting oneself for any Indian — poor or middle class. Why, even scions of wealthy trading and business families set up shop abroad to multiply their riches!

No wonder the first Indian to be killed in combat in Russia was a Gujarati — Ashwinbhai Mangukiya of Surat. Gujaratis are perennial seekers and creators of wealth. Surat is known more for diamond merchants than people who die on the borders donning the uniform. Ashwinbhai could never have travelled in search of a glorious death in the battlefield. He was travelling for prosperity. All migrants would agree with Falstaff that discretion is the better part of valour.

Ashwinbhai’s case is ample proof that Indian migrant labour is undoubtedly getting duped into fighting someone else’s war in Russia. All wars are dirty for sure, but someone else’s war becomes dirtier because there is no honour in dying the death of a mercenary. After Ashwinbhai, Mohammed Afsan of Hyderabad got killed. Then there were reports of five from Punjab and two from Haryana sending video requests seeking help at the Russia-Ukraine border. And only then did the CBI begin searching the premises of travel agents in seven cities on Thursday — Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, Ambala, Chandigarh, Madurai and Chennai; too little, too late.

The youngsters from Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Patiala in Punjab and Karnal in Haryana and elsewhere have been clearly tricked by agents who sold them the dream of crossing over to Europe through Russia. Some of them were even told the audacious lie about the requirement of visiting Russia to build a travel history that would help them later get a visa to the West. Such is the ignorance of these youths that they repeat the lies of their travel agents about going to Moscow in the dead of the Russian winter as tourists to celebrate the New Year, while their richer cousins go to Goa or the Maldives.

The Indian authorities have to investigate two aspects: the agents who traffic desperate youngsters out as ‘helpers’ for Russian combat units, and the Russian plan, if any, to entice and force them to fight against their will. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to be a history buff who takes immense pride in the march of the Red Army into Berlin. He would obviously know the role of the Punjabis, the Sardars, the Jats, the Rajputs, the Gorkhas, the Thambis, the Mahrattas and other Indian units in winning the two World Wars for the British, though almost every Hollywood or British movie conveniently forgets to show the Brown Man.

If there is a plan to recruit Indian youngsters to fight Russia’s war, it is inconceivably inhuman and terribly faulty. It is not just about the criminally inadequate 15-day training period, but also about the psyche of a migrant labourer who has been fooled into fighting for a group that has nothing in common with the wide-eyed Indian traveller. The Russians ought to have announced an inquiry. In the absence of an official Russian explanation, the onus of having to prove its innocence lies squarely with the Kremlin. Even if these recruits are being sent as ‘helpers’, it cannot be done without informing the South Block and taking an informed consent from the recruits. Indians cannot be forced to wear a foreign army’s uniform, and that is non-negotiable.

Whether they are ‘helpers’ for the Russian army fighting in Ukraine or poultry farm workers on the Israel-Lebanon border, the Union Government has a responsibility to stop foreign governments from recruiting Indians and pushing them into conflict zones. The Russian recruitment could be blamed on tricky travel agents and dodgy military contractors, but at least the Israeli recruitment was open and facilitated by the Government of India. The man from Kollam, Kerala, who got killed in Israel in a missile attack was earlier in the UAE and must have thought that he was merely travelling a little further west for a better pay.

All this while, the Union Government shut its eyes to illegal migration because it was a private enterprise that benefited the risk-takers, but it’s no longer so. Now, it has turned into a transnational trafficking network feeding warlords. Indian migrant labourers are not and should not be allowed to become mercenaries. Let them build the topless towers of the world, not kill strangers for money.


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