Just weeks after Britons voted narrowly to leave the European Union following a debate vilifying the role of immigrants in the UK, a Manipuri woman had to suffer appalling racial abuse at the Indira Gandhi International Airport on her way to Seoul.
Monika Khangembam was told at the immigration desk, “You don’t look Indian. Are you sure you’re Indian?” And when she refused to react with anger and instead chose to look away (the only dignified response), it came down to this: “See... You yourself need to know your Indianness. How many states are there in India?” And so it went on. Khangembam wrote about the encounter on her Facebook page and someone forwarded it as a tweet to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who has promised to take action.
What’s the difference between Brexit and Khangembam’s experience?
In the UK, the negative portrayal of immigrants is a routine feature in sections of the media.
In India, too, there is some of it—African migrants, for instance, have been described as drug dealers. In both instances, however, the way the common person imagines migrants and their role in society becomes key to our attitudes towards them.
I have a fundamental problem with the use of the word “migrants” to describe Indians working in a part of India where they were not born because I think the continued use of the term can set communities apart in our imagination, influencing perceptions and even perhaps attitudes toward the values of multi-culturalism and secularism.
I don’t know how this usage began in India; what I do know is that this is not an acceptable usage in many other parts of the world, and it has implications for race and community relations and the entire concept of ‘unity in diversity’ that has been officially promoted in India since before Independence in 1947.
If you were from Scotland, or Wales working in London, you wouldn’t be called a migrant. You might stick out for your accent, but a migrant worker you wouldn’t be. In the US, I am not aware of any instance of widespread use of the word “migrant” to describe an American in search of work, except in the context of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Now, it’s a term reserved for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians and others.
But in India, it’s commonplace to describe labour in terms of migration. There are Bihari migrants in Maharashtra, Punjab and Kashmir, Assamese migrants in Kerala, dispossessed tribal migrants from Jharkhand in Goa, and migrants from the “Northeast” (even the name of the individual state becomes redundant here) all over the country.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes migrants as anyone who moves to another place in search of work or better living conditions. But the Oxford University’s Migration Observatory unit, conceding that the term mostly denotes foreigners in the British context, says: “The use of the term ‘migrant’ in public debate is extremely loose and often conflates issues of immigration, race/ethnicity, and asylum.”
In the UK, the popular press on the Right uses “migrants” to emphasize the otherness of communities, and “immigration” to describe a process whose social and economic value it wants to tear into.
It is India that interests me here, for I have watched with interest an unfolding story about migration, race and religion over the past three years. Here, I believe, the consistent focus on the “otherness” of communities is implicit in the use of the term “migrants”.
What sort of otherness? If you are from the Northeast, you would be wearing short skirts, speaking English, singing English songs. You’d be unaware of your “nation” or the contours of your nationhood, as Khangembam was made to feel at the airport. If you’re from Bihar, you’d be working in the construction industry, as farm hands in Punjab, you’d be targeted for taking away “our jobs” in Mumbai. If you are a domestic help from Bengal, then you’re probably a Bangladeshi Muslim pretending to be a Bengali Hindu and you’re here to make money. There’s no evidence to say so, but you’re here illegally.
These are just some of the most obvious and commonplace prejudices you hear every day. There may be many more.
A history of violent sectarian strife, often fuelled by rumours, means the Indian media is normally cautious about reports emphasizing cultural or religious differences. It remains largely socially liberal even as it espouses neo-liberal policies in economics, trade and business. This is a well-recognized characteristic of the Indian media.
In the run-up to the Brexit vote, it was immigration that took centre-stage in the British media, encouraged by irresponsible and downright untruthful claims made by some politicians. Immigration numbers were inflated before the 23 June referendum.
In India, according to the Washington-based think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, about two out of 10 people are “internal migrants” who have moved across district or state lines—a rate notable for the sheer numbers. Women tend to move after marriage, while men move looking for work.
There are many challenges, the institute notes in a report published in 2014. Among them, it lists “restricted access to basic needs such as identity documentation, social entitlements, housing, and financial services. Many migrants—especially those who relocate to a place where the local language and culture is different from that of their region of origin—also face harassment and political exclusion.”
India, I believe, can do better than the UK or Europe. And, given its mind-boggling diversity, it actually has no choice. The mindset needs to change because this nation cannot “exit” from itself or its history.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1