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