In search of a home away from home

Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s recent proclamation that Bangladeshi immigrants will be deported if he comes to power is in keeping with the BJP’s culture of over promises, bombast and open threats to people of a minority community. Many people in this country rave about his decisive statements — never mind their historical flaws or logical holes. However, the statement he made in April at Serampore, West Bengal, while criticising the Trinamool Congress (TMC), goes beyond the party’s routine practice of creating hatred for the “other” — be it the religious or nationalist kind. He declared that all these Bangladeshis had better be prepared with their bags packed by May 16. Rally speeches apart, there is a need to clarify a few things to the Indian audience/voter as well as to Mr. Modi’s party.

Pawns of nation-building

We do have the draconian Foreigners Act of 1946 which allows the government to deport those who it thinks are foreigners while their families are left to move court and prove legitimacy of residency. Neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh have similar legislation with equally terrorising clauses. Indeed most countries do; after all these are the tools with which nation-states are crafted. It involves erecting concrete borders while allowing goods and labour to pass through. These tools end up allowing the entry of foreigners and then turning them into criminals. Even if both these moves are not by the same parties in all cases, it is the same political system that perpetuates the criminality of some and protects the citizenship of others. Therefore, individuals, if they are members of any such immigrant community, cannot be punished for the crimes of political parties. They are the pawns of nation-building with little to help them survive.

In recent times, the concept of human rights has emerged and its umbrella extends to those who do not have the secure roof of full citizenship over their heads. Conservative estimates of refugees alone put the number at over 12 million worldwide. Stateless people, which includes refugees and many others, who are “semi-citizens,” are difficult to count because they are neither full nor non-citizens. These are men, women and children shunned by national governments and criminalised by state laws. Though it may seem to the BJP and others to be unwanted sympathy and hollow intellectualism, just like people of all communities, minority Hindus or minority Indians in many countries survive thanks to this progressive idea against all kinds of abuses in the name of race, nationality or plain economics. Spurious history and a hostile public allow political parties in many countries turn near stateless people into scapegoats at the time of elections. At other times, these are the very same people who are exploited as cheap labour and carry out non-contractual risky jobs in the homes and businesses of full citizens.

Immigrants don’t sit idle because they cannot afford to. They work like most of us. They create relationships with their new place, make homes and learn the local language. They bring their favourite foods and grow them on unused little farms, often leased at high rates from local landlords. Urban dwellers live in ghettos in the shadow of the city. By no means can we, full citizens, claim to have given them any dignified space, but political parties promise us that they will get back these shanties to us, their rightful owners and thus reduce their developmental burden resting on our shoulders. Whether it is the “Bihari” in Bangladesh, the illegal worker in the United Arab Emirates or the taxi driver of Indian origin in the United States, these immigrants are a part of the economic system of their countries. They are not waiting for some paternal figure to rescue them from there. They struggle hard to get passports, IDs and public services, to have their children educated and retain their low paying jobs at the very least. They are keen to show history its place instead of constantly harking back to the complex question of origins.

Need for humane governments

When people cross borders due to coercion by political parties or to escape abject poverty, discrimination and prejudice, they also leave behind what they had. The process cannot be reversed by a sweep of the hand or a proclamation like Mr. Modi’s. The colossal injury to public sensibility and intimate neighbours caused by the post-Partition migration on our western and eastern borders has still not healed. Do we need more of such traumas? Is that how we seek to achieve development and good governance? The least that today’s political parties can offer to do is to commit to maintain good relations with our neighbours with whom we share very porous borders. Just like our neighbours, we have the difficulty of not being able to distinguish, without massive abuse of state power, who an illegal citizen is. Everyone knows that taking a hard line on this will result in the persecution of many hapless victims. Instead, the BJP chooses to declare that it will send Bangladeshi immigrants back. When immigrants are asked to have their bags packed, Mr. Modi is not merely criticising political parties he holds responsible for allowing border crossings but is also charging an entire group of people as being agents of their own misery.

Poor stateless people around our north-eastern borders — immigrants, illegal or foreign refugees — need humane and responsive governments. They need ration cards, work permits and some form of security from those who hate them because they are human beings with a universal right to life before being members of one or the other community. They also need regulated and just government processes so that the illegality can be distinguished and entire communities are not tarred with the same brush of criminality. The BJP’s slogan of “less government, more governance” falls short of what the movement of universal human rights needs.

(Manju Menon is a researcher on human rights and environment justice.)

Like our neighbours, we have the difficulty of not being able to distinguish, without massive abuse of state power, who an illegal citizen is