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 on the NRC list announced recently, caught my attention.
It was soon lost amid the tumultuous uproar, confusion and flood of stories of anxiety and fear on those hapless people whose names were left out of the citizenship list and their uncertain fate. The trials and tribulations that awaited them was swept away in the deluge of mainstream media covering the disturbing and alarming events of violence that has enveloped Assam and parts of
North East and now West Bengal. It may well ignite other parts of the country. It got me thinking as a dozen or so Bengali-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 until then that they were migrant Muslims who had fled from violence in Assam a couple of years ago. 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 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 Pakistan soldiers.
A wartime story
My military training in the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun was cut short because of the impending war, and I was posted to my regiment, which was stationed in Sikhhim on the Chinese border near Nathu La, a high-altitude outpost. On the night I reached the regiment, the troops were in transit mode, as orders were issued to move down to the plains for mobilisation at the Corps Headquarters in Siliguri close to the border with Bangladesh.
That was mid-October 1971. We soon plunged into war. There was an exodus of a wave of refugees in distress and panic moving into India as we marched deep into Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, in the opposite direction.
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 East Pakistan, which was under Army rule. Many of them had left not only their home and hearth but also their loved ones — including 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 world history in a short span of 6 to 12 months. It continued until India under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to attack and free the people from Pakistan military dictatorship and persecution. Bangladesh was created.
There were thousands and thousands of refugee camps on the Indian side of the border 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 nowhere in sight. India went on to fight a brave war alongside this human catastrophe and liberate Bangladesh. The local populations of those states where large numbers of terror-stricken migrants poured into, showed immense generosity and tolerance. When the war was over almost all the refugees from Bangladesh moved back.
What is happening in Assam?
I am narrating this foregoing story in the backdrop of the current 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. The newcomer is treated with hostility.
The Assam issue is complex and dates back many decades to the Assam mass agitation from 1979 to 1985. It called for deportation of all illegal immigrants irrespective of their religion, not just Muslims as the government has understood it.
From 1947 during partition and later after 1971, there has been a flood of refugees into Assam and there's resentment and insecurity that the linguistic, cultural and ethnic uniqueness of the state is endangered and in peril. That explains why the BJP is totally caught off guard in Assam and the northeast.
It’s human nature not at its best. In this paranoia, Assam is not different from many other states or people across the world. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena whipped up sentiments of Maratha pride to drive out migrants from Biharis and labourers from Uttar Pradesh as well as other outsiders a few decades ago, forgetting that the Marathas ruled Coorg and large parts of Tamil Nadu a few centuries ago and there are very large number of Maharastrians in these regions. In Bangalore, there was a Kannadiga movement, which often rears its ugly head and agitates, pointing out that outsiders outnumber Kannadigas.
We are all migrants
It’s well established by anthropologists and scientists, incontrovertibly, that the first man originated in Africa. It follows then that 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 3,000 miles. As do humans. They are migrants and nomads at heart. From the 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 want to 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 and is an unwelcome immigrant.
If you ask the Red Indian natives, is there any doubt about 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.
India belongs to the natives and aborigines. In Karnataka, the Harijans or Dalits are called Adi Karnatakas. The aborigines in Tamil Nadu and other states are Adivasis. And there are native tribes who are unsullied by any religion.
The rest of us — Gowdas, Brahmins, Lingayats, Marathas, Marwaris, Jains, Bunyas, Jats, Gurjars, Vaishnaviates, Kshatriyas — are all a bastardised stock from the Aryan stock melding with the Dravidians and the Adivasis, who pre-existed all of us. We were and are immigrants and invaders.
Every country, which has a huge influx of immigrants, has an open society welcoming of new ideas and is in turn enriched by 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.
The homogeneity of stock is weak and effete. When hordes of peoples, with their barbaric strength and vigour fuse into the staid, puritanical race, then a new race possessed of greater vitality and complexity emerges. That’s how the Indian civilisation progressed with its richness , complexity and diversity.
The immigrants are the real but unseen engine of growth in every continent and country. 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 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 documented 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, Tripura, Meghalaya and now the fear gripping the rest of the country, we have to ask why is the new legislation the Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) 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, 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, with an eye on Muslim vote banks 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, is using the 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.
Lest we forget, the amorphous Hindu pushes back every time the political parties go to extremes to either appease Muslims and other minorities and also repels when there is excessive majoritarian, divisive, communal politics. And West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee is adding to the unease by breathing fire and brimstone.
A political tinderbox
Assam and Tripura have erupted in flames. And are completely cut off from the mainland. There's unease among Muslim minorities —- across the country — who were once Hindus and converted centuries ago and are Indian citizens, that this is a deliberate attempt to denigrate them and relegate their status as equal citizens and paint them as anti-national. Discounting the attacks by opposition political parties, who are not free from bias, many journalists and writers who are apolitical and were also bitter critics of Congress and UPA , are aghast that the ruling party may have again blundered as it did with demonetisation and acted in haste for short-term political gains without studying the extremely complex and emotive issue of introducing the Parliament Bill to declare citizens persona non grata for want of adequate documentary evidence. Denotifying citizens is a myriad times more complex and messy exercise than denotifying notes.
Have the leaders behind this bill gauged its destructive and disruptive ramifications on the people and society, which may throw the entire country into utter panic and chaos? Did the government delve deep enough into fathoming the intricacy and multiplicity of ethnicity of migrants who co-mingled with local populations over decades and centuries and the enormity of the task of implementation because most Indians, both legitimate and illegal immigrants from decades and both Hindus and non-Hindus, do not have adequate domicile documents and dates of birth as many above the age of fifty were born at homes and delivered by midwives? That includes the author of this article who was delivered by a midwife in a village.
Or did it rely on overzealous bureaucrats and sycophants who are generally out of depth in dealing with societal issues on such a large scale, ignorant of history, the cultural diversity and ethos of this mystic land? Did they take into account that a bill like this may throw life of common people into total disarray and misery? Did the government consider and evaluate the impact on the economy that’s already reeling? Does not the leaders know that whatever may be the oral assurance and however sincere, the government machinery will only act by the letter and if implemented across the country, millions will be rendered ‘state less‘ and will be in limbo?
Because the government acts only by documents. As Nietzsche said: “The state is called the coldest of all cold monsters.”
Besides the immigrants are already here, so creating ‘detention camps’ for these millions will be an unimaginable humanitarian disaster and an avoidable burden for the state because they are now somehow eking out a living on their own? How did the government think it can execute such a gargantuan task without debating with the Opposition in a bipartisan way and arriving at a consensus? How is it under the delusion that it can execute this mammoth task without cooperation from the states and regional parties who control almost 70 percent of the states?
Has it realised it may have lit a tinderbox blinded and intoxicated by 'hubris', without realising it is stepping into a minefield? And has it crossed its mind that its adventurism may even politically boomerang adversely on the party?
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 of people in Assam and North East where the problem is not one of only Muslim immigrants as has been said earlier. They are now vulnerable and susceptible to pervasive fake news on social media and the effect of propaganda that migrants are stealing jobs rightfully belonging to the locals may sway them.
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.
These fears and eruptions of violence and inimical behaviour are now visible across Europe where refugees from war-torn Africa and Middle East are pouring into affluent European countries. So the problem here is not different, but a little more convoluted and there has to be sensitivity, an open mind with empathy with Assam and NE. As has already been witnessed in Assam, in the last NRC exercise, lakhs of residents, both Hindus and Muslims, figured on the list of people without the requisite documentary evidence.
This is not to say that there is no justification for a proper rigorous documentation of every citizen with due diligence and also of immigrants already domiciled in the country. And only those wanted for crime or convicted but on the run have to be segregated and dealt with separate legislation.Nor is this a case for keeping and allowing porous borders. Accomplishing all this in a
time-bound, scientific manner is a Herculean job. It must be well thought through and legislated for easy implementation with a wide acceptance of all political parties and regional leaders for achieving success. And all political parties are equally to blame for coming to this sorry state of affairs.
So the government must show humility and immediately withdraw the Act in its present form and come back with a new one that addresses all concerns of all communities and give guarantees and assurances that those already in the country regardless of their religion and caste will not be rendered stateless or homeless and attempts made to deport them or put them in ‘concentration camps’, unless they were convicted and have escaped from jail or on the run from the law. Such an admission will only enhance the stature of the government while winning the trust of its citizenry and immediately calm the fears and douse the flames.
How can the government ignore that it cannot deport them anywhere because no country wants them back and they have made it clear they will not receive them? And how can the government be oblivious to the impact this will have on millions of Indian diaspora migrants across continents over centuries, who are sprinkled all over the world in sizeable numbers in proportion to the local populations in those countries? Has it considered our global standing and stature if we rush this bill and create exiles in our country and place them indefinitely in detention camps? Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji and the Middle East have almost 40 percent Indians, Sri Lanka Tamils. There are millions of Indians in Malaysia, Singapore, Africa, the UK, the US and Canada and other countries and have populations ranging from 2 per cent to 20 per cent Indians. Should they be treated the same way?
Those immigrants in India both legal and illegal but without adequate papers but settled here since years, from all ethnicities, who no country is willing to take back, will eventually be assimilated with the local populations and many will emigrate and percolate gradually into other parts of the country as it has happened over the ages, in the rest of Indian subcontinent. But border states like the North East which bear the brunt and are vulnerable to stress and anxiety must not overlook that millions of people from the North East are already working and assimilated into society in every nook and corner of India as they are much sought after for their work ethic, cheerful outlook and sophistication and elan.
So it’s necessary to remind the government and all politicians to read again the engraving at the entrance hall to the Parliament where a Sanskrit line from Maha Upanishad is inscribed — (The world is indeed a family).
The full verse:
One is a relative,
The world is indeed a family. 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 Brahminic freedom.
- Maha Upanishad 6.71 to 75
This is the very essence of Hinduism. It’s also the much-touted slogan of the BJP and RSS leaders?
Can we not abandon it? It will be to our own detriment and peril.
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan. The views are personal.