CROSS­ING BOR­DERS

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Chin­may Tumbe Chin­may Tumbe is the au­thor of In­dia Mov­ing: A His­tory of Mi­gra­tion

In 1936, in a pre­vi­ous era of antiglob­al­i­sa­tion and anti-im­mi­gra­tion rhetoric, an In­dian mi­grant and an em­i­nent so­cial sci­en­tist, Rad­haka­mal Muk­er­jee, pub­lished what is ar­guably the world’s first im­mi­gra­tion man­i­festo. In a book ti­tled Mi­grant Asia, he ar­gued that labour-sur­plus re­gions of the world, like In­dia, should have the op­tion of re­dis­tribut­ing their pop­u­la­tion around the world and that every­one would gain as a re­sult. Af­ter 83 years, in a new wave of anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion and anti-im­mi­gra­tion rhetoric, an In­dian mi­grant, this time in the US, has again risen to the oc­ca­sion.

Suketu Me­hta’s lat­est book, This Land Is Our Land: An Im­mi­grant’s Man­i­festo, at­tempts to shed light on an im­por­tant phe­nom­e­non of our times and brings forth his re­search based on field vis­its across the world, per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and by way of a his­tor­i­cal en­quiry. When the book talks about mi­gra­tions through the voices of those af­fected, it ex­cels in sen­si­tiv­ity, nar­ra­tive and prose. On his­tory, it is less per­sua­sive. But on bal­ance, it is a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment.

The first part, ti­tled ‘The Mi­grants Are Com­ing’, beau­ti­fully por­trays the lives of or­di­nary mi­grants try­ing to make ends meet across bor­ders, of­ten in ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. The sites are care­fully cho­sen, such as The Friend­ship Park on the US-Mex­ico border or Tang­ier in Morocco that serves as a gate­way be­tween Africa and Europe. The third part of the book, ti­tled ‘Why They’re Feared’, starts with an out­stand­ing line—“The West is be­ing de­stroyed not by mi­grants, but by the fear of mi­grants”—and pro­ceeds to pro­vide a sear­ing in­dict­ment of the xeno­pho­bia seen to­day in the West. The fourth part, ti­tled ‘Why They Should Be Wel­comed’, doc­u­ments in de­tail the ben­e­fits of im­mi­grant di­ver­sity to host na­tions. The epi­logue, on the au­thor’s own im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence, is de­light­ful.

It is, how­ever, the sec­ond part of the book, ti­tled ‘Why They’re Com­ing’, that is a bit puz­zling. It is ar­gued that im­mi­grants from the ‘poor’ world in the ‘rich’ world should tell their hosts that “We are here be­cause you were there”. Here, the book bor­rows some of the core tenets of post-colo­nial in­quiry, in­vok­ing colo­nial­ism and the multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion for the roots of un­even devel­op­ment that has ap­par­ently sparked cur­rent waves of im­mi­gra­tion, along with wars and cli­mate change. The prob­lem is that the ge­og­ra­phy and his­tory of global im­mi­gra­tion does not quite match up to this de­scrip­tion. How can an In­dian em­i­grant in the Per­sian Gulf coun­tries or US, the prin­ci­pal des­ti­na­tions for In­di­ans, claim ‘cred­i­tor’ sta­tus when the host na­tions have not re­ally rav­aged In­dia’s present or past? Like­wise with the ma­jor­ity of global mi­gra­tion flows, which hap­pen ei­ther within coun­tries rather than across, or be­tween rel­a­tively ‘poor’ coun­tries. Ad­di­tion­ally, the pre-colo­nial roots of slav­ery, poverty and re­stric­tions on mo­bil­ity also tend to get missed in this post-colo­nial read­ing.

Amer­ica’s im­mi­gra­tion his­tory could also have been treated dif­fer­ently. In­stead of see­ing it as two dis­tinct pe­ri­ods of glob­al­i­sa­tion (broadly 1870-1930 and 1970 till date), both of which faced se­vere back­lashes against im­mi­grants, the book’s nar­ra­tive seems to ex­ces­sively hinge on to­day be­ing an ex­cep­tional pe­riod brought about by Amer­i­can-led dev­as­ta­tion around the world.

Fi­nally, the ‘im­mi­gra­tion as repa­ra­tions’ ar­gu­ment is novel but tricky. The au­thor may want to ex­per­i­ment with it by ad­mit­ting tents in his back­yard for low-rank­ing caste In­dian im­mi­grants for the sins com­mit­ted by In­dia’s up­per­caste ances­tors over hun­dreds of years.

Th­ese caveats apart, I sin­cerely hope that this book opens hearts, if not bor­ders, as the au­thor in­tends to. Rad­haka­mal Muk­er­jee, who died in the same decade as when Suketu Me­hta was born, would cer­tainly ap­prove of it. This book will cer­tainly be more widely read than Muk­er­jee’s, not least be­cause it has been pub­lished by a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion, the idea of which seems to per­turb the au­thor so much. ■

THIS LAND IS OUR LAND An Im­mi­grant’s Man­i­festo by Suketu Me­hta JONATHAN CAPE `599, 287 pages

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