A recent story in a local newspaper in Karnataka, about Muslim migrants from Assam, maybe numbering around two hundred thousand ( no accurate survey exists ) spread over the districts of Coorg, Hassan and Chikmagalur, working mostly as farm and plantation labour since a few years, not finding their names in the NRC list announced recently, caught my attention.
It was soon lost amidst the tumultuous uproar, confusion and flood of stories of anxiety and fear on those hapless people whose names were left out of the list and the uncertain fate and trials and tribulations that many will have to face that deluged the mainstream media. It got me thinking as a dozen or so Bengalee -Assamese were also in my farm and similar numbers more or less in the farms of many friends I knew. These labourers were filling a vacuum as there was a dearth of local agriculture labour owing to steady migration to cities over the years.
I was not aware till then they were migrant Muslims who had fled from violence in Assam from the native population. They were all Bengali speaking and you can't distinguish them from others.
This tragic human story of epic proportions playing out in Assam affecting lives of millions, caught in the inevitable vortex of politics and its cross-currents and eddies of multiple hostile ethnicities and bureaucratic muddle took my mind back a few decades and brought back still vivid memories.
I took premature retirement from the Army and came home to my village in Karnataka to take up farming. After 8 years of training in military schools , National Defence Academy and other Army training establishments and 8 years of Army service plunging head long into the 1971 war with Pakistan and later life on the borders and far flung areas, I was over come with a kind of fatigue and looked forward eagerly for a pastoral life, tending the lands , grazing the cattle , long walks in the country, swimming in the river in my village , gazing stars at night and sitting by a roaring campfire fortified by rum and tender coconut. I was in Bangladesh for three months during the war that broke out on December 3, 1971 and ended on December 16 that year with the fall of Dacca and surrender of over a hundred thousand Pak soldiers.
My unit which was stationed in Sikhhim when I joined it, first on the Chinese border and then moved down to the plains for mobilisation to Siliguri close to the border with Bangladesh in Oct. I had witnessed first hand the migration of more than 10 million refugees who had fled in fear from the Pakistan Army oppression and atrocities from the rulers of then East Pakistan. Many of them had left not only their home and hearth but their loved ones - wives and daughters who were held in captivity by the Pakistan Army. Thousands had lost their lives during that mass exodus.
It was probably one of the largest migration of a population in the history of the world in a short span of 6 to 12 months till India under the leadership of Indira Gandhi , who was then the Prime Minister decided to attack and free the people from Pakistan military dictatorship and persecution which led to the creation of Bangladesh. There were thousands and thousands of refugee camps on the Indian side of the borders with East Pakistan. And millions more kept crossing as the Indian Army went into the attack and a full-fledged war broke out.
The Indian government showed magnanimity and opened its borders and provided food and safe shelter to those millions of refugees in makeshift refugee camps in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Meghalaya and Tripura even though India's strained economy could not cope with a disaster on such a large scale with Western Aid no where in sight. And went on to fought a brave war along side this human catastrophe and liberate Bangladesh.
To return, on reaching my village I was dismayed to learn, when my father a retired teacher from the local village school, told me that all the lands were submerged under a monstrous dam the government had built across the lovely river Hemavathi, the main tributary to the Cauvery river. Not only our lands, but about a hundred thousand acres of fertile agricultural land and as many acres of forest lands along with 60 villages had turned into a watery grave.
Overnight thousands of people became refugees in their own land. Gorur, where I grew up, one of the most picturesque villages on the banks of the Hemavathi, on the fringes of Western Ghats, was spared by luck and providence, as the Dam was constructed just a kilometre upstream of the village. Our fate was much better than many small farmers and other villagers who lived off their tiny land holdings literally from hand to mouth. My father was a school teacher and still had a small pension to fall back upon and children were all educated and employed but the farmers, potters, basket and handloom weavers, blacksmiths, fishermen, shepherds, village barbers and other tradesmen of various castes and sub castes, were all doomed and grief stricken staring at a bleak future.
The government disbursed paltry sums in compensation for lands submerged, in bits and pieces, part of which was swallowed by middlemen, government servants and fixers. Those who were rendered landless were also allotted semi arid, unreclaimed bush lands in remote areas in compensation toward rehabilitation.
My family along with many marooned villagers was allotted a few acres of such shrub virgin land about 100 kilometres away in another part of the district. It had no road access, nor electricity or drinking water. The nearest village and road head was 5 kilometres away. But for me, the very remoteness of the lands, the sheer imagery of taming wild country and converting it into a farm and the kind of romanticism associated with it was alluring and I took the plunge and went and pitched my tent one fine morning, taking a dog and another young boy with me from my village as a helping hand.
Sadly most villagers who had lost their lands and homes ended up as construction labourers and migrated to nearby towns. It was heart wrenching to see them uprooted from their lands. A few farmers took courage and set up camp in make shift thatch on the lands here and there adjoining mine. It was a large swathe of about three thousand acres of ancient grazing lands untouched by the farmers' plough but with thick under growth in low lying areas alongside streams and brooks with big patches of open grass land. It was idyllic.
One fine morning after a week or so, the idyl was shattered. At the crack of dawn I woke up with surprise and alarm to find that hundreds of angry people from the nearby villages surrounded us and demanded that we vacate as we were outsiders, accusing us as being migrants from other districts usurping their lands where their cattle had grazed for centuries. They had broken the pots and pans of the other settlers and thrown their beds and linen out of the thatch huts and had dismantled the fragile dwellings.
Knowing that I was from the Army, they held themselves back out of some deference and also because I stood firm and calmly reasoned with them sensing a mob was gathering. I quickly realised how they felt and could empathise with their anger. And I had a feeling of guilt even as I was a victim myself. They were all landless people who had come there with their bullocks and ploughs, sticks and sickles, and they who were natives of that place, were not allowed to plough those lands all these years by the government as it was 'sarkari dharkhast' lands but we, who were alien migrants were permitted to encroach upon their commons. It sounded logical and seemed patently unjust. Their wrath was justified. I commiserated with them.
I quickly collected myself and reasoned with them that we can not be blamed for this just because the government was not sympathetic to their demands. I said we came there after we lost everything to the reservoir the government built. There were another 2000 acres more still un allotted lands adjoining what was allotted to us, and I said I will bring the government surveyors and after they demarcate the boundaries of our lands they could share it amongst themselves.
Those days there was a campaign by local politicians of opposition parties to encourage the landless to encroach government revenue lands for agriculture which were not forest lands. And the ruling parties wisely looked the other way to avoid alienating their votes. I brokered a peace deal with them and they all withdrew after seeing reason in my argument. And eventually, all those revenue shrub lands were taken by the landless labour of the surrounding villages.
I narrate this foregoing story in the backdrop of the Assam immigrants issue now grabbing headlines, because the moment you see an outsider settling in your village to till unreclaimed lands or set up a new business the local people by nature abhor intruders into their space and are inimical toward the new-comer.
The same mentality pervades business. Once you get a licence you resent others acquiring the same. You know the days of Ambassodor cars and the licence Raj when others weren’t given licence to manufacture cars. The passenger in a train mentality. After you board and get a berth, you dislike opening the door and facilitating the entry of passengers in the next station forgetting how you got there in the first place. It’s human nature not at its best. In that great novel Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck the story set in 1950s revolves around share choppers who were evicted by big corporates from the lands they had tilled for decades and hundreds of thousands of homeless and starving farmers migrate from village to village and farm to farm in neighbouring states looking for farm work to make ends meet. It is a gripping tale of intolerance and violence against people dispossessed of their land by the local populations and the resilience of one family overcome that terrible fate.
It’s well established by anthropologists and scientists that the first man originated in Africa. It follows, everyone in this world is a migrant, issued forth from that single stock, from a common womb from the cradle of East Africa and dispersed in infinite varieties across the globe. Birds migrate. Animals migrate. Fish in the seas cross continents. The turtles come to the beaches to lay eggs and roll across the oceans with the waves. Even the fragile Monarch butterflies flutter across Canadian and the US skies to Mexico logging 3000 miles. As do humans - from earliest available scientific evidence going back 50,000 years, they have migrated crossing vast continents and oceans seeking newer lands and pastures. The question is, how far do you go back in time to decide who is an immigrant and who is a native. It depends who you ask. If you ask Donald Trump he would say everyone who came to America after his present and third wife emigrated from Eastern Europe is an unwelcome immigrant.
If you ask the Red Indian natives is there any doubt that what they will respond - "Trump and his immediate forebears plundered their land." No one will disagree that the white man in the Americas and Australia and many other parts of the world usurped the lands of the aborigines, the Red Indians and the Eskimos who were as ancient as the rocks and the mountains and the glaciers in those lands and invaded and drove them to the Reservations. The only difference - while the whites attacked and killed the natives and laid claim to their lands and rivers and lakes as their own inheritance, the new immigrants who are fleeing their war-torn countries, destitute , hungry and ravaged by war , and many having lost their loved ones are only aspiring for a better future in affluent Western democracies.
Every country, which has a huge influx of immigrants, has an open society welcoming of new ideas and is in turn enriched by the immigrants. That's their reward. The immigrants are more hard working, daring, adventurous and are risk taking than the earlier settlers who preceded them. They fill a huge void in the economy at myriad levels which the natives are loth to fill or unable to and the immigrants are the real but unseen engine of growth. And the United States is in the forefront of innovation, intellectual leadership and immense wealth and power because of immigrants from every nook and corner of the world. Former President Obama expressed it best when he said - "America was made by immigrants.
Don't forget we were strangers once too. " Every year new waves of immigrants from every part of the world have mingled into the milieu of an ever enriching soil, getting nourished and nourishing it further in return as the rivers into the sea. And the Indian civilisation is hailed as one of the greatest civilisations because it absorbed successive waves of immigrants who included as always invaders, from the Aryans and the Greeks, and Mughals and later the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese, changing yet ever the same with better and new nourishment. This is known from recorded and known history going back four to five thousand years. But many more waves must have crossed the lands and seas from Arabia,China, Central Asia, China and Mongolia and definitely Africa long before recorded Indian civilisation because the features of many of our ancestors in India if you look at the people - natives, aborigines and tribals - there's the unmistakeable chiselled African features hewn out of the same ebony. One does not have to be an anthropologist to divine it. That gene and DNA from the immemorial past is co-mingled in all of us to a greater or lesser degree.
Coming back to the story in Assam , we have to ask why is it causing such a sense of foreboding and apprehension now, when the people of those areas took it in their stride and accepted it with a kind of stoicism and fortitude in the run-up to the Bangladesh war when more than 10 million poured into Assam and Bengal almost overnight or earlier during and after partition ? Is it the bearing of politics and whipping up of emotions by politicians with an eye on the elections to consolidate votes? Human nature could not have changed so suddenly.
A decade ago and earlier the encouragement of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh into Assam and neighbouring states by the Congress party in power at the Centre then and also other regional parties including the Left parties , with an eye on Muslim vote bank to consolidate minority votes in their favour unsettled the locals and created fears of insecurity among them. And now there's suspicion that the reverse is happening and probably the party in power at the Centre the BJP and in Assam are using this NRC exercise at this juncture, though it was long ago proposed, to consolidate majority Hindu votes to their side with an eye on the elections. And West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee is adding to the unease by breathing fire and brimstone.
Calm and objective historical analysis of the immense advantages of immigration to a state's economy and its culture and a philosophical overview of this phenomena of human migrations over millennia since human life began though valid will not cut ice with the multitudes at the grass roots who are now under invasion of pervasive news and social media and the effect of propaganda that migrants are stealing jobs rightfully belonging to the locals. This can lead to unfounded phobias and insecurities of all kinds and lead to alarm and violent unrest especially when there's huge unemployment and poverty.Left to itself , if politicians stay out of this without encouraging immigration as was done earlier or whipping up fear and dread as is happening now on both sides of the political divide or even showing haste to regularise the immigration mess and chaos which has been built up over the years, but carry out the exercise in a calm , bipartisan and systematic manner with abundance of caution and due diligence ,
the immigrants will eventually be assimilated with the local population and many will percolate gradually into other parts of the country as it has happened over the ages.
These fears and eruptions of violence and inimical behaviour is now visible across Europe where refugees from war torn African and Middle East are flooding incessantly by tightening their borders because of belligerent resistance from local populations. But in India the immigrants are already here and many have been here since many decades. Even in the US every few years the illegal immigrants are absorbed and citizenship granted. Now going forward, the government should show empathy and generosity toward those who are already here and made India their home but who do not have papers and regularise their documentation and as in the US bestow them only resident rights and citizenship granted only after ten or even fifteen years and tighten the border security to prevent further exodus from neighbouring countries. Not giving them voting and citizenship rights for ten or more years will also put paid to hopes of political parties that wish to take political advantage of migrant populations based on communal demographics.
But India though undeveloped in a wider sense of the word with inequality and inequitable growth, it's still looked upon as a great country because of its ethos of tolerance and magnanimity in welcoming everyone into its hold. It is truly a worthy asset. New influx of people and new ideas will only strengthen the country.Thousands of years ago the Vedas said - Aano Bhadraha kratavo yantu viswatah - Let noble thoughts come from all directions.
And the Upanishads said -
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam - The World is indeed a family.
It's the very essence of Hinduism. And the latter is also the credo of the BJP and RSS. This verse of
Maha Upanishad is engraved in the entrance hall of the Parliament of India. The world is a family One is a relative, the other stranger, say the small minded. The entire world is a family,
live the magnanimous.Be detached,
be magnanimous, lift up your mind, enjoy
the fruit of Brahmanic freedom.
—Maha Upanishad 6.71–75
How can we abandon it ? It will be only to our detriment.
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan.