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We are all migrants

All of us share shifting regional identities. So why are some singled out as ‘outsiders’?

All of us share shifting regional identities. So why are some singled out as ‘outsiders’?

The Thackerays may think otherwise,but migrations have been an anthropological constant in our history since 2000 BCE,when tribes from southeastern Europe,Central Asia and even the Arctic circle entered this gigantic rhomboid from the northwest and fanned out all over the north. The Vedas urged the Aryan hordes to keep forging ahead and they did. In 4th century BC,Buddha urged his bhikkus to carry the message of peace and non-violence across the land. His predecessor Mahavira,another iconoclast reformer,had also exhorted his Jain sadhus and sadhvis to constantly be on the move and preach.

Ashoka the Great imported labour from neighbouring Orissa to clear the land and build a new Magadh. The Muslim invasions of the 11th century triggered even more gigantic waves of migration as the defeated kings,their subjects and their priests,fled their lands. By now,the castes had become unrecognisable as gotra or pravara identities were no longer a shield against violence. According to the first ever census of 1891,India had over two lakh wandering jogis.

If all of us share wholly fuzzy and makeshift regional identities then what,one may ask,is the Thackerays’ problem with an ancestral line that can be traced back to Bihar? Why are Biharis in Mumbai and Bengali Muslims in Assam and Delhi suddenly being dubbed outsiders and dangerous? Why are the people from the Northeast being made to feel insecure in Karnataka or Delhi? Richer migrants and outsiders will encounter practically no prejudices anywhere,and Narendra Modi will happily roll out a red carpet for the Tatas and Suzuki.

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Meanwhile,the exact size,clientele and locations of the forces that first help smuggle in people from Bangladesh or children from the poverty zones of Orissa and Jharkhand and then supply them as cheap,illegal labour all over India,remain out of sight. The likes of the Thackerays imply that allegedly superfluous non-Marathis flocking to Mumbai from UP and Bihar are driving the Marathi manoos out of jobs. What they are doing is driving down the price of labour. Almost every unskilled and underage immigrant is paid less than the legally stipulated minimum wages. But unless a young domestic worker is found hanging in a middle-class colony or a starved bonded labourer is rescued from a dark basement,no one takes an interest in the regular providers of cheap labour in the region,nor do the police seem enthused about penalising factory owners or placement agencies that traffic in child labour.

Nobody migrates from their own land without the hope of going somewhere better. The ancestors of the Thackerays could have been no exception as they left Magadh and migrated towards Maharashtra. A few centuries after the Thackerays moved to Maharashtra,the once mighty Peshwas of Pune migrated north with hundreds of their nobles and servants and priests. The British exiled Peshwa Baji Rao the Second,last Srimant of the once mighty Marathas,to Bithur,near Kanpur. When the Peshwa requested that he be sent at least to the holy northern city of Varanasi near the River Ganges,the British refused. By then Varanasi had such a sizeable population of Marathi immigrants that the British were apprehensive if they permitted the wily Peshwa or even the Rani of Jhansi to land there,supposedly for a pilgrimage,they could start a popular revolt against them with help from “their people”.

All our talk of building and living in multicultural societies will remain an empty slogan unless this subaltern history is dusted and the experiences and stories born out of all large-scale migrations in the past are fed into modern public debates in all Indian languages. Today the argument against immigrants everywhere springs mostly from long habits of defying colonialism: Germany for Germans,Israel for the Jews,Africa for the Africans,Mumbai for Marathi Manoos… and so on . But in actual lived experience,this minimalist dream has been achieved only exceptionally and nearly always with tragic results. The more fiercely xenophobic leaders like Raj Thackeray defend themselves against “outsiders”,the less the state will have left eventually,to defend.

Remember the disintegration of a country called Yugoslavia?

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The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and chairperson of Prasar Bharati

First published on: 17-09-2012 at 03:02:02 am
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