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India’s unwelcome immigrants problem: identity politics beats class politics

By Saral Sarkar - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2018


For many decades now, all over the world, identity politics has become a major cause of social conflict. Masses of common people have been forming themselves into racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic identity groups, and, from time to time, they have been fighting against each other, often by violent means, for power and a higher share of the given resources of their country. Sometimes it develops into pure hatred of the Other. This long-term trend has particularly been strong in India with its multiplicity of languages, religions and castes.

For leftists, socialists and communists of all kinds, it is highly regrettable, because they are advocates and practitioners of class politics. They would rather see the masses fighting against their class adversaries.

Assam – a case of inner-Indian conflict

Against this general background, recently, a particular old conflict broke out anew in Assam, one of the Easternmost provinces (states) of India. Assamese speaking people, the original inhabitants of the province, have been complaining since long that too many people from the other provinces of India, particularly Bengalis from West Bengal and the republic of Bangladesh, are legally and, alternatively, illegally migrating into Assam and occupying jobs, business opportunities, and arable land, which, they say, should go to the Assamese, the sons of the soil. To make matters more complicated, in the past few decades, the number and percentage of Muslims, who have for a few centuries now constituted a substantial minority of Assam, have been swelling because of illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh, thus also fanning the already existing Hindu-Muslim conflicts in the province.

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In order to contain the anti-foreigner agitations of the Assamese and allay their fear that they were losing control of their own country, the authorities acceded to their demand that the names of genuine Indian citizens residing in Assam be ascertained and published in a National Register of Citizens (NRC). This was first done in 1951. A similar operation was carried out in 2017 and an updated NRC was published on 30th July 2018. In the process, it was found that some four million residents of Assam were not citizens of India.

A debate then ensued on the question regarding the future of these illegal immigrants, the non-citizen residents in India. In the process, also the whole problem of illegal immigration in Assam was discussed. From the contributions to the debate I can filter out two main viewpoints: (1) Immigration of Bengalis into Assam had begun in the 19th century when India was under British rule. It only continued after the subcontinent became independent and divided into two separate states (1947). The British had promoted it in their own imperial interest. The blame for the resulting conflicts between the Assamese and Bengalis should therefore be laid at the door of the British rulers (see e.g. Sharma). (2) The other view is that the Bengali immigrants have deprived the Assamese of their legitimate right to enjoy and control the wealth and economic opportunities of what is their territory (see e.g. Gohain).

The True Cause of the Conflicts

What I miss in this discussion/debate are some relevant statistical data, particularly some on the demographic development in Assam. They could be helpful both in regard to identifying the most important cause of the conflicts and in regard to suggesting solutions. Assam is a province (state) where, in 2001, Assamese was the mother tongue of less than half of the population (48.8%) and Bengali that of a substantial minority (27.5%), where Hinduism in all its varieties was, in 2011, the religion of 61.5% of the population and Islam that of 34.2%, where, in 2011, Muslims were the majority in 9 out of the 27 districts. On economic development in Assam we read: "The per capita income of Assam was higher than the national average soon after Indian Independence. But it has slipped since, and the difference has become larger since liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1980s."In such a state, the population grew from 8 million in 1951 to 31 Million in 2011. It is estimated to be 35 Million in 2018. (All data from Internet and Wikipedia).

Seen against the background of these data and given India's history full of all kinds of conflict since the early 20th century, it is no wonder that Assam has been suffering so many communal and linguistic conflicts. That Sharma blames the British for all these does not surprise me. It is an age-old explanatory model of the standard Left to blame imperialism/colonialism/CIA for everything bad. (Another such model is capitalism.) As if it was the British who were to blame for Assam's and the Indian subcontinent's huge exponential population growth since 1951, as if mass migration of poor people to greener pastures in other countries is not a universal phenomenon.
Gohain at least comes close to the truth when he speaks of "natural resources" and "unemployment and landlessness". More so, when he speaks of the "fact" that "the Indigenes" (i.e. the Assamese) have been "robbed of their power to decide how many guests they could welcome in their homes." At another place, he truthfully uses the term "aliens" for non-Assamese Indians and Bangladeshis. For such people's coming to Assam he uses the term "infiltration". (Trump uses the term invasion).

But neither Gohain nor Sharma mention the ever worsening population problem, the fact that Assam and the Indian subcontinent, in fact the whole world is simply overpopulated. Today, if we do not take cognizance of this fact, we cannot really and fully explain any serious problem in the world. We then cannot explain why already in the 1960s to 1980s, many Maharashtrians were complaining that South Indians were occupying the urban areas and the jobs of their territory, nor why they wanted to push the Indians from South India out of Maharashtra, a province of India. They did the same, in 1914, 1915, 1917, with regard to Biharis, who had occupied many menial jobs (private car drivers e.g.) in the urban areas.
The feeling that aliens are infiltrating and occupying their"home" is not only troubling Assam, but also many other countries of the world. Today, in Europe, Australia, and the USA, it is called the problem of illegal immigrants or too many immigrants. In such countries, it is the main cause of the recent rise of fascistic forces. In Sweden, it has already destroyed the formerly glorious social-democratic model of an ideal society

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And the feasible solution?

Sharma has very generally thought about what to do, but he could not come up with any concrete proposal. He writes about "assimilating the huge immigrant masses in a democratic way", "providing opportunities for those who are left out", and "democratization of the polity". But what opportunities can help assimilate the huge masses of immigrants other than jobs and small businesses, which are already in very short supply for the indigenes? Democratization of the polity does not create jobs and other sources of income! Gohain implicitly suggests that at least non-Indian (if not all) Bengalis should be deported out of Assam. But this is an idea that is very difficult to implement. Bangladesh would most surely not recognize them as citizens of Bangladesh.

I have an idea for a long-term solution of the problem. We may learn from the Chinese. When Deng Xiaoping took over power in China in 1979, he, firstly, opened up China for exploitation by foreign imperialist capitalists. This has already been done in India and Bangladesh. Secondly, Deng initiated and enforced the famous (for some, notorious) one-child policy. This has not been done in India, nor in Bangladesh. Of course, it promises to bear fruit only in the long run. But it must be done, while in the short and middle term we somehow muddle through. For, as Paul Ehrlich said, "Whatever [be] your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth]." In the present case, the cause is peace and harmony among the ethno-lingual and
ethno-religious groups in Assam. And we will never achieve this end as long as there is no stability at the demography front of the whole Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Democrats, rights-people etc. might object that such a policy violates human rights or reproductive rights. But firstly, the right to produce as many children as one wishes is not a universal human right, and secondly, it is usual, because necessary, to curtail certain rights in times of emergency. I agree with Gohain when he says: " … human rights … is an ideal goal, not a reality during a period of transition to that." For a nation, I would like to add, survival and internal peace have top priority.

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About the Author

Saral Sarkar is an Indian academic resident in Germany who writes about Eco-Socialism.

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