Friday, March 25, 2011

"Ripples from Bengal"

As an addendum to my previous post, I thought I'd share with our readers an essay from Himal South Asian, the December 2010 essay by Afsan Choudhary "Ripples from Bengal". Drawing from the history of his family, descended from mid-19th century migrants from what's now Bangladesh to what's now West Bengal, Choudary provides a potted history of migration in Bengal--at first within, then from--from the 19th century on. Migration patterns are intimately tied to the patterns set by colonialism.

Migration – be it within national borders or beyond, voluntary or forced – has long been part of Bengali life. Anil Seal, in his seminal book India and the Emergence of Indian Nationalism talks of how the British in Bengal created the new clerical ‘babu’ class to serve their own needs, which coincided with the aspirations of the emerging Bengali middle class. Schools and colleges sprang up in response to the demand for education, but soon there were more graduates than jobs. This is what set off the internal migration from Bengal to other parts of India, particularly modern-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where there was demand for an educated class. The Ganguly family of the well-known Indian film stars Kishore and Ashok Kumar was part of this Bengali migrant population.

While Bengali migrants to North India (and Burma) belonged largely to the middle classes, the journeys of the poorer migrants usually took them to the Indian Northeast. When Syed Ahmed Khan and the Nawab of Rampur (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), the former a Muslim and the latter a Hindu, came together to fight the immigrant Bengalis, they were responding to classic anti-immigrant sentiment. Their organisation, a splendid sign of interfaith political cooperation, was dedicated to fighting these new arrivals. Syed Ahmed’s virulent anti-Bengali feelings are rooted in the appearance of Bengali graduates taking jobs that locals thought were rightfully theirs. When many people in India today rail against Bangladeshi/Muslim ‘outsiders’, there are clear echoes of the rage at the arrival of Bengali Hindu migrants into the colonial United Provinces.

Migration, which is today seen as a security issue between New Delhi and Dhaka, began with little protest from local indigenous people when it came to the Northeast. There were no national borders to be crossed at that time – it was all British India, and the locals were not asked their opinion because they were poor and with little political organisation. It really did not matter whether anyone was going there, went the thinking, because no one else wanted to do so.

Between 1947 and 1971, large-scale migration was non-existent in East Pakistan save for the border areas, where national boundaries existed in the eyes of the states but not the border people. My grandfather travelled back and forth between Shillong, where he ran a restaurant, and Dhaka, where his family had moved after 1947, thus existing as a stranger in both lands. In 1965, while he was visiting Dhaka, war broke out between India and Pakistan. He was declared an enemy, his restaurant was seized by his business partner and he was rendered a pauper overnight. Till his death in the mid-1970s, Grandfather gradually retreated into his own mind, continuing to live in his Shillong home inside his head. He had experienced what many Hindus did in East Pakistan: living in two lands and then paying a price for doing so, despite the fact that the two lands look and feel – and are – so similar. Likewise, for my ‘refugee’ uncles, life in East Pakistan was brutal, as they had no networks and never managed to build or find any. They were lost in the labyrinths of failure into which most forced migrants disappear, marginalised and part of neither land, immigrants to nowhere.

[. . .]

Internal migration rem.ains a largely invisible phenomenon. Within Bangladesh, people move to harvesting work every season, creating a relatively unknown migrant culture with its alternative survival strategies and values. And as the landless population increases, so too does internal migration. Some move from the rural areas to Dhaka, choking an already dysfunctional city even as the new extreme poor populate the city in a desperate attempt to survive. Sometimes internal migration produces deadly results, as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From the mid-1970s, the Hill Tracts saw militant insurgency by the indigenous Chakma population and a brutal pacification attempt by the Bangladesh Army. One containment strategy was to bring in landless people from the tidal flats of the Bay of Bengal to the hills, and give them free land for cultivation. The clear idea was to create a pro-state local population to marginalise the highlanders and reduce them to a minority. The new migrants, already brutalised by poverty and natural disasters in their erstwhile homes, became vicious in protecting the land given to them. In this way, then, internal migration was successfully used as a military tool, while the indigenous highlanders lived in refugee camps in India. When they returned following an agreement in the mid-1990, few got their land back.

While emigration and migration to most areas require certain qualifications, connections and money, none of this is required when one moves to India. Duly, millions have gone across the border over the last century. This process, which was an ‘internal migration’ till 1947, thereafter became an illegal international border crossing, increasingly attached to security implications. In the Indian Northeast, clashes between migrants and local indigenous populations have resulted in regional instability, while elsewhere in India the Bengali of Bangladesh is often accused of being linked to ‘terrorist’ activities. Many of these migrants are reduced to mere shadows, living lives of wretched poverty and fear. Another destination for the very poor is Pakistan, where many work as domestic servants and in the fisheries sector, so badly off that they spark pity even among Pakistanis. Their lives as migrants are as poverty-stricken as the ones they left behind at home.

We now see three distinct trends in Bangladeshi migration: emigration for settlement to Europe, Australasia and North America; contract labour migration to the Gulf and a few Southeast Asian countries; and of course the movement of people across the border areas, mainly to India. Migration to West Asia has drawn attention due to its enormous impact on the home economy. Remittances have emerged as a key driver of economic growth and poverty reduction in Bangladesh, increasing at an average annual rate of 19 percent over the last three decades. The World Bank reports that remittances – the bulk of which come from West Asia – now exceed all other types of foreign-exchange inflow. The Bangladeshi migrants in West Asia do not constitute a monolithic block, of course. Professionals are comfortable, while labourers lead miserable lives. But when the latter return to Bangladesh, they constitute a newly rich group in impoverished rural areas, a new local elite impacting on power relations – and keeping the economy from collapsing.

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