The Nowhere People

By Ranabir Samaddar

The Indian Express, 09 May 2003

The story is as bizarre as it is symptomatic of the problem the two countries are grappling with. A solution to the problem means coming up with an impossible combination - Bangladesh acknowledging the phenomenon of hundreds and thousands of people eager to leave the country, and India stopping illegal immigration.

India remaining a humanitarian State, and India fencing the border with Bangladesh. Immigrants filling in forms to come legally to work, stay or pass through, and India and Bangladesh seeking friendly relations with each other. India adopting a non-communal attitude to the issue, and India acknowledging that its citizens too 'migrate' in the same way, facing the same dangers. And Bangladesh and India accepting the responsibility of the welfare of its citizens.

Both countries wish the problem to vanish, both wink at each other, both suffer the nightmare of moving millions of peasantry, both adopt a communal gaze and discriminate in their attitude to these people, and both pray that these 'nowhere people' somehow vanish, giving the political class of the two countries relief.

To the relief of the two States, the 213 people stranded in the no man's land between Bangladesh and India at Satgachi in Cooch Behar vanished mysteriously on February 6. They had been there for a week, India saying they were illegal immigrants and should be pushed back and/or not allowed entry. Bangla-desh refused to accept that they were its citizens, demanding proof and refusing to 'take them back'.

So there they were, huddled together in the severe cold in the open for six days and nights, with guns of the two forces facing each other. And then on the morning of February 6, the BSF found that the group of 213 had disappeared. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The Indian external affairs minister surreally commented: "Snake charmers cannot spoil our relations. We can get over these problems if Bangladesh acknowledges the fact and decides to talk."

Expectedly, newspaper headlines on the 'snake charmers' have disappeared. Problems of greater urgency now occupy media attention: forthcoming assembly elections, post-war situation in Iraq, corruption in high places, India-Pakistan relations, etc. Meanwhile, labourers, persecuted Hindus, women, men and women in search of their 'El Dorado' continue their movement across the subcontinent. On the historical pattern of migration, we now have an added factor: that of communal politics predicating the movements of populations.

A few years ago, when I was travelling along the border from north to south West Bengal, I saw and wrote about how border villages were becoming homogeneous in terms of the religious identity of its inhabitants. Hindu villages on our side, Muslim villages on theirs. And as the BSF data will show, these border villages have become what the colonial administrator, M.C. MacAlpin, had called exactly a century ago, the 'broken villages' - villages with mixed populations now 'breaking up' along religious lines.

These villages are now being encouraged to become patriotic, take up lathis, tangis, spears, swords and guns to strengthen the border, and 'resist the illegal intruders'. In the past few years, north Bengal has witnessed repeated border clashes in which populations on both sides have taken part. With the scenario becoming 'communalised', some Muslim-only district villages are also surfacing.

In this 'reappearance' of a 'Partition mentality', cartographic, communal and political lines are being replicated continuously creating new visible and invisible frontiers. The feature of these 'nouvelle frontiers' is that they are being produced internally. They are not vertical lines separating two spaces, but concentric circles continuously dividing and then locating these to rejoin them in the universe of the nation. Law, citizenship, rights, obligation, morality and habitation are all caught in this universe of concentric circles.

In this situation, only 'snake charmers' can survive. They have no truly defined religious identity and have become nomadic, combining subcontinental mobility with local lives. And statecraft must lose in the face of the ingenuity of the immigrant population who must in response become people who can suddenly 'vanish'. If one remembers the fate of immigration detection measures - such as the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act - in Assam, we cannot be surprised.

I had argued some years back that we need to make a shift from a national security-centric framework to a human rights sensitive framework in understanding the issue of population movement in our region. An ex-governor of West Bengal and retired high-level home ministry official commented: "These are well-meaning intellectuals whose advices the immigrants can do without." I am sure that immigrants very sensibly do not wait for our advice. They do what they are best at - 'slip in and out and survive'. The point is: will the governments listen to our suggestions? Here, briefly, are some of the suggestions:

** Introduction of a liberal visa regime
** A work permit system for the entire zone which is to be regarded as a common labour market
** Introduction and encouragement of border trade
** A democratic management of the border
** Allowing panchayats, kisan sabhas, trade unions in informal labour, local human rights groups and  women's groups in border areas a significant role in the running of borders
** A regional convention or a SAARC protocol on rights of immigrants and asylum seekers.

These aren't radical suggestions. They do not call for abolition of borders. They call for a little more humanism, a little more kindness, hospitality, and an awareness of the need for policy innovations that can bypass the path of confrontation, militarisation of borders and communalisation of the citizenry.

Conventions on migrant workers, frontier workers, convention on the rights of the child, convention against all forms of discrimination against women, against racism, International Labour Organisation conventions - all these are landmarks in the journey of justice.

Immigration is an issue that signals new forms of racism everywhere, and in today's post-September 11 world with the spectre of terrorism over all places, drawbridges are being pulled everywhere - in the west, and in the east. And yet, governments will not win in its objective of tackling immigration. Simply because, today's immigrants are not the prodigal children who want to return. They have appeared nearly 60 years after the days of Sadat Hasan Manto's Toba Tek Singh, who, if we remember, lay in the middle of a stretch of land which had no name.

Today's 'nowhere people' are survivors. They upset the neat boundaries of States and remind us of the unaddressed issues of justice and responsibility. Hence, by their very survival, they scare the political class. Hence the shrieks and the outcries of an impending doom. Will the political class of South Asia for once see beyond their noses?

(The writer is the author of The Marginal Nation, a study on trans-border migration)