We are All Migrants

Why the vilification of the migrants is a favourite pastime of desperate politicians from Mumbai to Manhattan, wonders AIJAZ ZAKA SYED

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Why the vilification of the migrants is a favourite pastime of desperate politicians from Mumbai to Manhattan, wonders AIJAZ ZAKA SYED

I’ve been to Bombay, or Mumbai as it’s known today, only twice. Once for an interview; and secondly to catch a transit flight to Dubai! Yet this great city is part of my cultural consciousness. Just as it’s part of the consciousness of most Indians and of everyone familiar with the fantasyland called Bollywood.
Bombay belongs to the billion plus population of India. Cosmopolitan cities like Bombay, London, New York and our own Dubai of course do not belong to a particular state or people. They belong to all of us. They make you feel at home, whoever you are or wherever you come from.
This is why this fuss over the so-called outsiders by Raj Thackeray, a little known politician, is so absurd. Besides, this is so disingenuous. After all, his uncle Bal Thackeray, the original rabble-rouser of Bombay, has exploited this issue for over four decades now.
In fact, he has squeezed the last drops of political mileage out of it. First it was the South Indians and then the Muslims who became the target of Thackeray’s poisonous politics. But desperate men turn to desperate measures. And the second generation Thackerays appear real desperate for recognition.
However, the strong adverse reaction the campaign against the so-called outsiders has generated leaves no one in doubt that the days of ‘divide-and-rule’ politics are over.
It might have worked in 1960s, ‘70s and even ‘80s but it doesn’t work any more in the new post-modern, post-market reforms, 21st century India. The world’s biggest democracy is not only home to the world’s outsourcing, IT and call centres industry but it is also looking to lead the world as one of the two emerging big powers.
More important, this wired and connected India is part of the global village where there are no borders and no walls of chauvinist nationalism and ghetto mindsets. The Mumbai that shuts the doors on its own people is so out of place in this all-embracing India.
Today the Indians, and South Asians in general, are being recognized the world over as some of the most diligent, hard working and brightest professionals around.   How ironic is that they are unwelcome in their own country?
But like I said, desperate men turn to desperate, and tested, measures. The politicians everywhere are an unimaginative lot. But they do know that the shortest and surest way of expanding their base and reaping the electoral windfall is the demonisation of the Other.
That is why from Mumbai to Manhattan and from Toronto to Tokyo, the vilification of the Other, in this case the migrants, is the favourite pastime of desperate politicians.
The migrant is the prime target and convenient whipping boy everywhere. High rents? Blame them on the migrants. No jobs? Blame them on the outsiders. Corruption? Crime? Inflation? You know who is to blame!
Ironically, most of those complaining about the outsiders taking away their jobs and being an unwelcome burden on their economies were themselves outsiders once.
Many of those raising a storm over the so-called Bhayyas from UP and Bihar (big North Indian states) themselves migrated to Mumbai from the inner towns and villages of Maharashtra and neighbouring states.
If you expand the analogy, those endlessly complaining about the Arab and Muslim invaders had themselves been invaders once.
Most North Indians are understood to be the descendants of the Aryans. They came from up north – from southern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus – to settle down in the north of India, Iran and what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Aryans subjugated the Dravidians, the original natives of the sub-continent, to rule this great land.
India as such is a country of immigrants. Its culture and civilization, evolving over the past five thousand years, are rich today largely because of this constant wave after wave of migration the country has attracted from around the world.
Similar double standards prevail in the US. Those demanding a total closure of the country’s borders and freeze on new arrivals today themselves were not long ago immigrants. From the Spanish conquistadorsof Christopher Columbus to the Boston Brahmins of New England, everyone is an immigrant in this beautiful country.
Those who can really claim to be the original natives of this land can hardly be seen anywhere. No other race has perhaps been so systematically cleansed and obliterated the way the Red Indians or Native Americans have been.
Today they are seen only in some protected territory and sanctuary as if they were an endangered species of animals. But then they are an endangered species — in their own country! And down south in Latin America and Africa, it’s the same story of endless exploitation by European colonizers. Ditto the poor Aborigines of Australia who are fighting for survival in their own land.
So much for the fabled tolerance and magnanimity of Western civilization!
But the West has no monopoly over this exploitation and the vilification of invented enemies.
Whoever we are and wherever we are, we are compelled by this need to find or invent some ‘alien’ or the other so we can dump all our insecurities and problems at his or her doorstep.
When the labour minister of a Gulf state recently warned of an ‘Asian tsunami’ of expatriate workers threatening the region, he was only responding to the same need.
The honourable minister needed to appear concerned over this ‘threat’ for the sake of his own gallery. This concern is understandable, if a bit unwarranted, when you are outnumbered by expat population to a ratio of 20:80. Otherwise the minister knows as well as we do that this is a mutually benefiting relationship.
If the expatriates are here, it’s because they needed these jobs. But they are here also because their expertise and services are needed. This is a two-way street. No one is doing anyone any favours.
If the expats like us have benefited economically and enjoy a lifestyle that is the dream of many of our countrymen back home by living and working in the Gulf, this region has also benefited from our expertise and experience.
In fact, the hard work and sweat of the expatriates in general and the South Asians in particular have vitally contributed to the building of the UAE and other Gulf countries — literally.
How can anyone imagine these glitzy glass-and-steel skyscrapers and trillions of dollars of projects across the Gulf without the migrant construction workers from Asia?
A great majority of these construction workers come from my country, especially from Andhra Pradesh, my state. Every time one sees them toil tirelessly and diligently in extreme weather conditions, one is filled with great pride.
They deserve our gratitude for doing what they have been doing. Actually, they deserve more than gratitude. They are humanity’s soldiers, these men are. They travel thousands of miles from homes and put themselves at great risk so their loved ones back home could have a decent life. Few sacrifices in the world can match this.
In fact, there’s something divine about the very act of migration itself. All of us migrate at some point of time or the other. From the land of our birth to the land of our choosing, from innocence to experience, from ignorance to knowledge and from life to death. We are all migrants.
All divine religions celebrate migration; Abraham’s migration across Arabia, Moses’ migration from Egypt to the Promised Land and of course the migration of the Last Prophet.
The migration is so central to Islam that the passage of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, from Makkah to Medina forms the starting point of Islam’s history. Hijrah, the Islamic calendar, literally means migration.
So next time you think of throwing someone out as an outsider, try not forgetting that we are all migrants — wherever we are, in Mumbai or Manhattan. This big, beautiful world belongs to all of us. God has given it to us to share it, not split it into bits and pieces.
[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. Write to him at [email protected]]