Fear and anxiety run deep in Thubarahalli, located along the tech corridor on Bengaluru’s eastern edge, where an estimated 10,000 Bengali migrants live in slum clusters.  (Photo: Gopal Krishan/Mint)
Fear and anxiety run deep in Thubarahalli, located along the tech corridor on Bengaluru’s eastern edge, where an estimated 10,000 Bengali migrants live in slum clusters. (Photo: Gopal Krishan/Mint)

Why Bengaluru doesn’t need the NRC

  • The state has just 4,420 people of Bangladeshi origin, as per the census. Where is the call for NRC coming from?
  • Known for its tolerance, Bengaluru has also witnessed tensions around the threat of cultural engulfment and the loss of the linguistic primacy of Kannada

Bengaluru: How many villages might Bangalore have swallowed?" A farmer activist conferred a demonic quality to the spatial sprawl of Bengaluru, a city with a population of 410,000 in 1941, which rose to 1.2 million in 1961, and stood at 8.5 million in 2011. The migrant movements at the heart of this expansion have now attained newfound significance due to persistent and vociferous calls for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Karnataka over the past few months.

Last week, Karnataka’s home minister Basavaraj Bommai weighed in. “We (the government) have started the preliminary exercise to prepare the ground to introduce the NRC in Karnataka by collecting necessary information (about illegal immigrants). After this, we’ll discuss it with Union home minister Amit Shah and take a final call in a week or two," he said.

The move is expected to particularly target Bangladeshis, a community which is singled out for paranoid distrust. But where exactly do Bengaluru’s migrants come from? What might be the driving forces? And what are the political issues emerging out of the changing demographic composition of the city? Many of these questions can be reasonably answered with the help of available census data on migration that was originally collected in February 2011 and released only recently after a long delay.

What the data reveals is that the absolute headcount of a community (or people of a particular nationality) doesn’t matter as much as the perceived visibility of that particular community (the eight north-eastern states combined, for example, accounted for just 24,000 Bengaluru residents, but they mostly work in highly visible sectors like hospitality). It also shows that the number of international immigrants in the silicon city was a mere 44,000, with roughly half of them originating from a country in Asia. And the number of people of Bangladeshi origin (includes legal residents) in the entire state of Karnataka in February 2011 was 4,420 (0.00007% of the state’s population).

(Graphic: Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint)
(Graphic: Naveen Kumar Saini/Mint)

Though these figures are self-reported, they gain additional validity since two different censuses threw up similar numbers (the headcount of Bangladeshi origin people in 2001 was 4,400). Moreover, the 2011 figures were collected under the watch of a B.S. Yediyurappa government, and released, in 2019, by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government. However, these hard facts have completely evaded the din of Karnataka’s politics, with the number of alleged “illegal" Bangladeshis swinging wildly from anywhere between 40,000 and 400,000. Plans are also afoot to set up two detention centres.

What these newly resurgent calls for the NRC in a state which has no international borders—and with a capital that has relatively few foreigners—capture is the rising anxiety about migration. The census data shows that roughly 15% of the city’s workforce is made up of migrants, and rising. Domestic migration far exceeds migration from other countries. But resentment against “outsiders" is a catch-all sentiment that can, at times, bypass logic.

The 2011 Census data, for example, offers an empirical grasp on the migration effects that are already visible in the local landscape of the city: small restaurants which serve north Karnataka cuisine in Bengaluru (due to rising intra-state migration); the service staff in apartments, restaurants, and pubs tend to be from Odisha, West Bengal and the North-East; and, most private security guards don’t tend to speak Kannada.

Known for its tolerance towards migrants and settlers, Bengaluru has also, parallelly, witnessed tensions around the threat of cultural engulfment and the loss of the linguistic primacy of Kannada. This latent perception of cultural disempowerment will now need to reckon with the politics of identity engendered by the central government’s plans to prepare an NRC—which recently put 1.9 million people in Assam in a legal limbo—for the entire country. Thus, it is important to understand who makes up modern Bengaluru, because local and national political manoeuvring has imbued the issue of migration and identity with a deeply charged political valence.

Who is a Bengalurean

There were nearly 4.4 million migrants in Bengaluru city in 2011, of whom more than 800,000 were from within the Bengaluru district. Roughly 55% of the remaining 3.6 million came from other districts within Karnataka. The neighbouring states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Goa and Puducherry) accounted for 32% of these out-of-Bengaluru migrants. And, the largely Hindi-speaking states (Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) accounted for another 7.6%.

Karnataka’s interstate migration story is largely a Bengaluru story, with roughly half of all interstate migrants coming into the southern state gravitating towards the capital city. Interestingly, this affinity is higher for Hindi-speaking states and the North-East, i.e. 55% and 63% of them, respectively, who head towards Karnataka end up in the capital.

While migrants from neighbouring states continue to be the largest group among migrants from other states, there is a disproportionate perception of the size of migrant communities from northern and eastern states as their numbers are increasing faster than others. Tamil Nadu continues to be the largest contributor to the migrant pool in Bengaluru. However, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in that order, have seen a dramatic increase in their contribution to that pool. Eighty seven per cent of all Odia migrants came in the last census decade (2001-11). The corresponding figures for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were 79 and 81%.

The changing patterns of migration would have only picked up further momentum since 2011 due to the booming construction sector in the city, and the growing literacy levels and agrarian distress in the economically stagnant northern and eastern states. Surprisingly, a large-sized state like Madhya Pradesh does not figure much in Bengaluru’s migrant story, probably owing to it being a land surplus state with several industries to absorb local labour.

Contrary to the widespread impression, the 2011 Census puts the number of the north-eastern migrants in Bengaluru at only 24,000. The year following the capture of this data, i.e., in August 2012, more than 30,000 of them were reported to have fled the city after rumours of attacks on people from the region. At that time, most newspapers noted that there were 250,000 people from the North-East in Bengaluru! The inflated sense of their demographic presence probably owes to their high visibility in the hospitality sector: restaurants, beauty and hair salons, and hotels.

North-eastern migrants also dominate in another visible category of city resident: students. A sixth of all the north-eastern migrants came into the city for education, compared to less than 6% of educational migrants from the Hindi-speaking states and nearly 2.5% from the neighbouring states. Inner variation among the Hindi-speaking migrants is noteworthy: only 2% of Rajasthani migrants came for education, whereas nearly 10% Bihari migrants in the city were educational migrants.

Many of these cross-country movements are about hope, optimism, and new opportunity. But they can fuel resentment in host communities. And, in Bengaluru, the politics of the outsider has primarily found voice through the issue of language.

According to the language data in the 2011 Census, Kannada speakers formed 42% of Bengaluru’s population, whereas, the corresponding figure for the Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and Hindi speakers was 16%, 14%, 13% and 6%, respectively. When compared with the 2001 figures, only the Kannada speakers and Hindi speakers show a significant increase in the number. The Kannada and Hindi speakers formed 28% and 3%, respectively, of the total city population in 2001. The expansion of the city’s corporation limits to form the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in 2008 explains the increase in the number of Kannada speakers but not that of the Hindi speakers, whose increased presence owes mostly to new migrants.

Arena for linguistic identities

Linguistic identity politics has offered the main prism for viewing cultural cleavages in Bengaluru over the decades. Ever since the state of Mysore came to be seen in relation to a federated distribution of ethnocultural units in a newly independent India, securing the linguistic primacy and prestige of Kannada in Bengaluru, its capital city, which has significant numbers of Tamil, Telugu, and (Dakhini) Urdu speakers, has been at the centre of Kannada language activism.

This dynamic heightened after Bengaluru continued to be the capital even after the enlarged territorial boundaries of the state in 1956 (which now included present-day north Karnataka) pointed at the desirability of a more centrally located city as its capital. The perceived cultural intransigence of the Dravidian politics-inspired Tamil migrants who moved into the city following the independence provoked the pro-Kannada activists, giving rise to a Kannada-Tamil “rivalry" in Bengaluru that lasted for over six decades.

Kannada activism has taken many forms over the decades. The Kannada activists created the now ubiquitous yellow-red bicolour flag for Kannada and popularized Bhuvaneshavari, a deity to represent Kannada.

With the rise in the number of Hindi speakers, as well as the heightened push for Hindi from the central government in recent years, Hindi seems to have displaced Tamil as the linguistic “other" in Bengaluru. The protests against the use of Hindi signs and announcements in the newly launched Metro Rail bear this out.

Search for a new ‘Other’

The politics of the NRC seeks to ride on top of this pre-existing politics against outside influence, which was driven by legitimate concerns relating to the preservation of cultural and linguistic identity within a federal polity. In July, the Bangalore South MP asked the Centre for an Assam-style verification of citizenship on grounds of a “security and internal security threat" due to the influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into Karnataka and, in particular, Bengaluru. Another BJP MP from Bangalore Central had requested the Union home ministry to set up a detention centre in the city last year for illegal Bangladeshi and African immigrants.

The clamour for an NRC in Bengaluru appears to be driven more by ideological strategies rather than any facts.

In most parts of India, due to a variety of historical reasons, Muslims have always been more urban than other communities. According to the 2011 Census, Hindus, Muslims and Christians formed 79%, 14% and 6%, respectively, of Bengaluru’s population, whereas the corresponding figures for the state as a whole were 84%, 13% and 2%.

Is the hard push for a nationwide NRC exercise aimed at making Indian cities more amenable to communal mobilization? Might this effort to classify Indians along the categories of “citizens" and “illegal immigrants", coded along the lines of religion, nationalize all the states, overriding the struggles within them for securing their distinct ethnolinguistic identities within a federal Union?

(Chandan Gowda and Vikas Kumar teach at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

Close