Predictably, the Karnataka government’s proposed plan to provide Kannadigas 100 per cent reservation mainly in blue-collar jobs in private companies— except infotech and biotech sectors—in the state has evoked adverse reactions from many quarters. The move is said to go against the national policy of ‘one country, one market and one set of laws’.
However, this is not the first time India is witnessing the socalled “sons of the soil” controversy. There have been provocative remarks by “Maratha champion” Raj Thackeray against North Indian, particularly Bihari and Uttar Pradeshi migrants in Mumbai.
Usually, the phrase “sons of the soil” is considered divisive because it implies “separation” from the national mainstream. But such an assessment will be simplistic. Contrary to traditional notions, some dimensions of the phenomenon of “sons of the soil” are healthy and if sympathetically viewed and addressed, they promote the cause of national integration. Only when these dimensions are overlooked contemptuously, the phenomenon takes a nasty turn.
States like Bihar, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, over many years now, have been exporting manpower to many parts of the country. Bihari labourers comprise nearly 30 per cent of Delhi’s slum dwellers.
They are an important component of Punjab’s agricultural success. In Tamil Nadu factories and Gujarat industrial establishments, Biharis and Odias constitute the bulk of the labour force. There are no protests against them in these states. In contrast, there is massive antipathy against Biharis from locals in states such as Assam and Maharashtra. Why?
Examples from a few foreign countries will help us find an answer. When Sri Lanka got independence in 1947, the two largest ethnic groups were the Sinhalese, with 74 per cent of the population; and the Tamils, with 19 per cent. Seeds for division were sown when the Lankan government created the Gal Oya Development Board for providing landless peasants with fertile areas in the Eastern Province. Initially, most migrants were Tamils and Muslims. But then, came a group of ‘Kandyan’ Sinhalese villagers from the Central Province, and then mostly Sinhalese from other provinces. They received better land. This inflow activated a demographic threat among the Tamils leading to the formation of protest groups and self-protection militias. The dangerous LTTE was also born.
Similarly, during the partition of India, 95 per cent of the population of Pakistan’s Sindh province was Sindhi. But by 1951, 50 per cent of the urban population of Sindh was Mohajirs (who came from India) whose mother tongue was Urdu. It reached 80 per cent in Karachi and 66 per cent in Hyderabad. The government entered the equation as early as July 1948 when Karachi was turned into a separate federal area under the Centre’s jurisdiction. This meant a considerable financial loss for Sindh.
As a result, the urban-rural divide widened, with Karachi receiving investment almost exclusively and rural Sindh being ignored. Worse, Punjabis were further brought to Sindh as landholders. Sindhis began to see themselves as sons of the soil, demographically challenged by Mohajirs and Punjabis. Now, Pakistani analysts believe Sindh may follow the example of what today is Bangladesh. Similar examples are the Chakmas in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh, the Moros in the Philippines, Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, and Achenese in Indonesia. The point is, causes of national integration are not strengthened by promoting ‘migrants’ to prosper amidst the locals’ poverty and backwardness.
If in the name of national integration, a Punjabi sets up a factory in Telengana and fills up all posts of sweepers and clerks with people from outside the state, then it promotes national disintegration. In other words, the “sons of the soil” slogan can only be confronted successfully by dealing with the sources of migration than with its consequences.
If Biharis face no problem in Punjab and Odias evoke no hostility in Gujarat, it is mainly because there is a perennial shortage of manual labour, as more and more people are graduating to better paying jobs in these states. But in a state like Assam, Biharis are targeted because jobs are shrinking fast, a problem compounded by the influx of alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh. Similarly, there have been instances of resentment against Biharis trying for subordinate posts in the government and education sector in other states which have substantial number of educated but unemployed people. A few years ago, the Congress government in Rajashan decided not to recognise Bihar degrees as Biharis were flooding their subordinate posts.
So, if Biharis, or people from Uttar Pradesh, are disturbed in Mumbai, then the real reason goes beyond the aggressiveness of Shiv Sainiks who, all told, did send a first-generation Bihari- migrant like Sanjay Nirupam (or a first generation Bengali-migrant like Pritish Nandy) to the Parliament not long ago. It is sad that the overall economy of Maharashtra, once among India’s richest states, is not doing well. It will be worth analysing the migration pattern of poor rural Maharashtrians to Mumbai in search of jobs that Biharis are doing. And it is not just a coincidence that farmers in Maharashtra are committing suicide on a large scale.
Thus, Karnataka’s latest move is a clear sign that the state’s rural economy, as is the case in the rest of the country, is not doing well, leading to increasing migration of unskilled labour to cities. The problem needs a long-term solution at the national level; there is no point in blaming the Karnataka government for its “incompetence”.
Prakash Nanda Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi