There is a lot of anger in This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto (Penguin Random House). What made you write it?
The anger comes from personal experience of racism. But there is also anger on behalf of people less fortunate than I am; the Bangladeshi people who sell flowers on the streets of Venice; or the Mexican maids who clean toilets in New York. All around the globe, there is an army of people, who I call ordinary heroes, working to make a better life for their children. But these are the people who Western politicians are calling criminals. These people are not moving to the West because they want to see the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty; they are moving because the West stole their futures through colonialism, war and climate change, and left them no choice.
How did your family leave Gujarat?
Colonialism had reduced Gujarat to destitution. The British never developed it; they were more focused on Bengal and Delhi. When there was no possibility of making a living from their land, my forefathers had to move out to Calcutta and Kenya.
When the British came to India, India had a quarter of the world’s GDP. When they left, India had less than four per cent. During the colonial period, the European share of world GDP went from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.
As I walk around London right now, looking at the museums and palaces, I think I should have a room in all of them because they were built with my ancestors’ money.
You cite a remarkable figure in the book: 40 per cent of all national boundaries in the world right now were made by two countries, England and France.
And they were lousy borders. Look at what is happening in Kashmir right now. It is the direct result of lousy British map-making. They had to leave in a hurry because Britain was bankrupt by the Second World War. They had finished robbing India and had to leave the scene of the crime. They gave a barrister named Cyril Radcliffe five weeks to draw two lines down the map. He had never been to India. Partition survivors on both sides have told me they didn’t know which side of the border they would be until several days after Independence. When they did, they had to pick up everything and run.
If you look at the map of Africa, there are these strange straight lines. These maps vivisect tribal homelands. All these conflicts in Africa are about these tribes trying to reunite.
You went to America in 1977, when you were 14. What was New York City like back then?
New York City was dangerous and bankrupt. It has now become much nicer and safer. Two out of three New Yorkers are immigrants or children of immigrants. New York is a poster child of the benefits that immigration can bring. (It’s) the same thing with London. The city is incredibly multicultural. But the whole country is on the verge of a self-made catastrophe. It was the result of the people in Britain’s countryside being afraid of multiculturalism…And, as a result, the whole country is about to fall apart. So, what I say in my book is that the fear of migrants has had much worse consequences for these countries than migrants ever will.
Tell us about how you assimilated, if you did at all.
I still have a strong Indian accent. I enjoy American jazz and humour and its landscape. It is not as if I assimilated. I expanded my identity. I was Indian, and now I am Indian and American…When we travel, we don’t lose our original selves, we add to them.
You say that populists narrate a false story well. What stories should these be countered with?
All around the world, there are populist strongmen, like (Narendra) Modi, (Donald) Trump, (Vladimir) Putin, (Rodrigo) Duterte…men who have sold a false story well: that the country is being attacked by outsiders. In India, the narrative is that we have to be afraid of Bangladeshis and Muslims. In America, they have to be afraid of Latinos. In England, you have to be afraid of Africans and East Europeans. In each of these countries, the populists demonise one group or the other. If you look at the evidence, these stories fall apart. Migrants commit crimes at a lower rate than natives; they come not to rob and rape, but to work.
The only way to fight that is to tell a true story better. That’s why populists are so afraid of writers and journalists, of novelists, of truth-tellers. That’s why I tell the story of families at Friendship Park, on the American-Mexican border. A son who had not seen his mother for 17 years, went up to the iron fence and told her how much he loved her. All they could do is to put their pinky fingers through the fence and do a pinky kiss. It was heartbreaking. I wanted to show the ordinary reader that migrants are people just like us.
Why are children and parents coming to America from Mexico or El Salvador? And has America contributed to that?
America has devastated these countries through its guns and its meddling. Anytime there is a leader who is a threat to American interests, it has sent troops and installed generals pliant to its wishes and its corporations.
Second, America sells guns to these countries, where gangs are engaged in horrific civil wars over drugs. America then buys their drugs. It devastates their economies and makes the countries impossible to live in. And what are (ordinary) people supposed to do? They pick up their children and move north, to the home of the person who has taken away their future. And all they are asking for is a chance to work.
How will migration be affected by climate change?
The biggest human phenomenon of the 21st century is going to be migration caused by climate change. By the middle of the century, land that is home to 650 million people will be under water; one-third of earth, home to 1.5 billion people, will be a desert. All these people will move.
A Stanford University study showed that since 1960, global warming has reduced India’s economy by one-third. At the same time, it has increased the GDP of countries like Norway and Finland, because warming made it easier to grow crops. So global warming makes poor countries poorer. And who is responsible for this? The US put in one-third of carbon in the atmosphere; European countries emit one-quarter. They built their economies by burning fossil fuels, and countries like India have to pay the price. So rich countries should let people from poor countries in. I am calling for immigration as reparation, particularly as climate change kicks in. It is simple moral justice.
And when they do, everyone is happy. The rich countries aren’t making enough babies. Their birth rates have been falling dramatically. They need immigrants to work and pay the pensions of their ageing population.
What is the American mainstream response to your book?
I am getting death threats and hate mail. Fox News commentator Ann Coulter wrote a racist and abusive column against me. At the same time, there have been many gratifying responses…I have been on TV shows, published two opeds. The (usual) argument is: what’s in it for us? What my book has done is it has shifted the debate in some quarters.
America is set to become a majority-minority nation (when one or more of racial and ethnic minorities will make up the majority). But can Trumpian politics stop that?
Trump is trying to get re-elected on the basis of white fear about immigration. Right now, he is involved in crackpot schemes to buy Greenland. Maybe he thinks he will put all the immigrants over there. The number the white supremacists are afraid of is 2044, by which year the country would become a majority-minority nation. Even if all his dreams come to fruition, that will only push that date by five years. The demographic trends in America are irreversible. Even if you were to completely stop letting in immigrants, it is already too late for a white majority to last longer.
What are your thoughts on what is happening in Assam, where there is a complex process of separating citizens from illegal immigrants?
It is shameful to disenfranchise people who have been born there. But I understand the economic and cultural anxiety of the Assamese, like I understand the anxiety of the working-class white American. Assam should be getting resources from the rest of the country to deal with this kind of influx. But we can’t alienate Indian Muslims the way the government is doing right now. If Indian Muslims are alienated, the country will never recover.
What if you had not been an immigrant?
I would have lived in India and been a diamond merchant. The act of immigration made me a writer.