Of migrants, refugees, infiltrators and self-proclaimed children of the soil
It is shocking that 77 years after Independence, India presents a picture of a house badly divided.
In the past decade or so, words once commonly understood have lost their meaning. They have become charged with toxic content and provocative abuses that can be weaponised in explosive hate speech. Before we try to examine, hopefully dispassionately, how we have reached this sad state, perhaps it is best to begin with the rest. Who are those that are neither the migrants, refugees, infiltrators and invaders nor their progeny? Can they be recognised as ‘original inhabitants’ of the geographies they define and dominate simply by excluding all who have been labelled as others?
It is unfortunate that senior leaders have used these terms loosely, if not mischievously, under pressure of political expediency. Foreigners always perceived as different, aliens who could be friendly or inimical, have now fudged identities. They are referred to as locusts and vermin that have to be chased out, expelled and exterminated. India has always provided shelter, refuge and asylum, to those from its neighbourhood trying to escape persecution and genocide. It can’t be denied that in the vastly changed circumstances, it can no longer do so without exercising caution. Infiltrators, illegal immigrants, terrorists, smugglers, drug and gun runners, and traffickers, try to enter India in the garb of helpless refugees. Those hostile to our interests encourage a dangerous proxy war through invasive infiltration.
What troubles us the most isn’t the threat of the long, porous borders that we share with neighbours. The unity and integrity of India are jeopardised no less when the original inhabitants, self-proclaimed children of the soil, apply these labels to their compatriots. India has witnessed large-scale migration across millennia from north to south and west to east. Besides major movements of population, there have also been smaller ones comprising traders, artists, scholars and pilgrims who have changed the contours of the demographic profile of the country.
The British may have colonised India, but at the time of Independence, the subcontinent had more than 566 princely states that were effectively sovereign within their domain. Most were loyal to the British masters and were oppressive rulers. At the same time, they patronised music and arts, employed administrators from different parts of the country and reinforced the idea of India through royal matrimonial alliances. What needs to be understood well is that ‘outsiders’ weren’t branded as refugees or infiltrators. A large number of migrants settled down where they secured employment and adopted local language and mores. Prejudice continued, but it was largely based on class and caste. Those who suffered most were the unlettered, famished and ill-shod. Religious differences didn’t divide the social fabric.
It is shocking that 77 years after Independence, India presents a picture of a house badly divided. Partly, this is the result of the communal riots that followed Partition and decades of turning a blind eye to stark socio-economic realities that breed communal strife. Ostrich-like Congress governments believed that the spread of education and economic development would cure this cancer. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminds us of ‘appeasement’ from the ramparts of the Red Fort, he makes us sit up and ask the uncomfortable question: Who has been appeased before the dawn of Amrit Kaal? The downtrodden Dalits, the invisibly exploited tribals, the religious minorities—or only the Muslims? Aren’t the perils the result of opportunistically appeasing the electoral majority—religious, linguistic or the dominant caste? Surely, affording protection to a harassed minority—a right guaranteed by the Constitution—can’t be called appeasement. Those who have lived in this land for generations can’t overnight be transformed into foreigners or suspect children of invader ancestors.
Barely had the ethnic-religious conflict passed for a moment that natural calamity struck Himachal Pradesh. Precious lives were lost. It was shocking to get reports of a minister blaming the collapse of buildings and caving-in of roads on Bihari workers and architects. This isn’t the first time such irresponsible statements have been made. The enforced exodus of daily wage earners during the Covid lockdown and the treatment meted out to the outsiders unmasked the ugly face of parochialism and communalism. We may have to wait long years before we can expel the Chinese who have encroached on our land; we shouldn’t hasten to vent our ire on ‘Chinky-looking’ outside their places of birth in the Northeast and alienate them further.
When will young Indians, who comprise the majority of our population, realise that we are all children of the same soil? States that comprise the Union of India share borders, languages, communities and creeds with their immediate neighbours. All large cities, metros and mini-metros have been built largely by immigrants—intrepid traders, entrepreneurs as well as migrant labourers. India’s resurgence can only be ensured when we rid ourselves of these toxic words.
Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University