The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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My father migrated to Bombay from Tamil Nadu at the age of 17 in 1922 to earn a living. His father was dead and he had a mother and siblings to support. Our mother tongue was Kannada but he ensured that he, my mother and all their children, when in Mumbai, learnt fluent Marathi. My brother marched for a united Maharashtra including Bombay, for the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti. Yet, in a few years the Shiv Sena started a movement to expel people with our surname and with similar ones originating in south India. We were supposed to be taking jobs away from Maharashtrians whose mother tongue was Marathi. Over the years, the Shiv Sena realized that hostility to all Indians except such Maharashtrians would not win them elections. Becoming pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim would. They were proved right.

The recent agitation against migrants to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has a similar basis. It raises many questions. Do migrants take jobs away from local people? What about migrants into Mumbai from other parts of Maharashtra? Should not then the original East Indian inhabitants of the Salsette Islands have a superior claim over the Marathi speaking immigrants from outside Mumbai? Who actually made Mumbai into the commercial capital of India — the Marathi inhabitants or the mass of Parsis, Gujaratis, Bohris, Khojas, Mangaloreans, Tamils, Kannadigas, Malayalees, Sindhis and others? Is a Maharashtrian one whose mother tongue is Marathi, or one who is just an inhabitant of Maharashtra? Does Maharashtrian domicile demand living there, speaking Marathi or ownership of property? Does a Marathi-speaking spouse change a person’s status for this purpose? In India, there is considerable intermarriage across gotras. Thus the deshasthas of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka claim to be Marathi-speaking though their Marathi is a mixture of Tamil, Kannada and Marathi and probably undecipherable to a person from Pune. Can they be regarded as Maharashtrians?

In 1955, K.M. Pannikar, a distinguished historian and member of the States Reorganization Commission, talked to us students in Delhi University. He said that the commission’s biggest problem was to take a decisive stand regarding Bombay and Bangalore. Neither had majority Marathi- or Kannada-speaking populations. Bombay was regarded as the commercial capital of India and that status might be affected (it has certainly eroded since 1955) if it were to be given to the new linguistic state of Maharashtra. Ultimately, political agitations and pressure from Y.B. Chavan, made Bombay the capital of Maharashtra. The commission could not conceive of giving Bangalore to Andhra Pradesh, although the majority of the population was Telugu-speaking. It kept Bangalore in Karnataka and instead gave Hindupur on the border, to Andhra Pradesh.

Mumbai has been for long the most meritocratic city in India. It is where competence and hard work have brought success, unlike in other parts of India till recently. If Maharashtra had not been part of India, with Indians coming from other states, Mumbai would certainly not have become the commercial capital of India.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of movement over India to any Indian, and the right to visit and reside anywhere (unless there are military restrictions as in Kashmir or parts of the Northeast). It is the duty of every state government to give equal protection under the law to a migrant from Bihar or elsewhere in Mumbai as it does to someone born there.

India has been very permissive in allowing internal migration as well as migration from other countries. The illegal influx of unknown millions, mostly from Bangladesh, has changed the linguistic and communal pattern of Assam. It is changing the voting blocks by language (Bengali) and religion (Muslim) in parts of Delhi and other big cities, as these migrants move. There is also rural-urban migration. No political party has made this a major issue.

Delhi is today largely a Punjabi city as even its lieutenant-governor, a Punjabi, has said. It was not so before Partition. Bangalore, after the information technology boom, has become even less of a Kannada-speaking city than before, with a huge influx of people from all parts of India. Its culture has changed. Much property is owned by non-Kannadigas. This is also happening in many other cities. In rural Punjab and Haryana, migrant farm labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh make up for the reluctance of local youth to take up farming as an occupation. Even brides are imported because of the high rate of female infant mortality, from as far as Kerala.

There have been violent reactions against migrant labourers in Punjab and Haryana. A high-level government committee defined a Kannadiga as one who could read and write the language. But the Karnataka government and leadership have been relaxed about this definition.

Linguistic chauvinism is common in other countries. Belgium is tearing itself apart because of the disagreements between its French, Dutch and German-speaking populations. Conflict in Pakistan between the ruling Punjabi elites and others — Sindhi, Pashtoon, and so on — are similar to the earlier conflict with the Bengali-speaking population of East Bengal. The United States of America is poised for similar conflicts as Spanish-speaking immigrants begin to dominate large parts of the country.

Political parties, their leaderships and governments, have a duty to protect freedom of movement and residence. But neither the Congress nor the Left, fearing electoral consequences, have come down heavily in the past on Balasaheb Thackeray and his violent statements and actions against linguistic and communal minorities in Mumbai. Even his nephew, Raj Thackeray, trying to establish his political leadership, escapes because of this fear. Governments and political parties are subverting the Constitution by not dealing quickly and firmly with the advocates and perpetrators of violence.

Raj Thackeray says that in other parts of India spewing hate against Indian migrants is not punished. The agitation in Bengal when Sourav Ganguly was dropped as captain of the Indian cricket team is an example of linguistic and regional loyalties at the forefront. Even a ‘secular’, communist minister in the state government made extremely provocative remarks at that time.

The Central government did not scold the West Bengal government for failing to protect Taslima Nasreen, who was in Calcutta on a valid visa. Maharashtra has not punished those practising violence against migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Nor has it acted against violence to migrants in Punjab and Haryana.

The television provokes violence by blatantly prejudicial reporting. There is no action against TV journalism and other media which spread hostility. A single visual of a solitary man breaking the rear-window of a car was flashed for days, suggesting widespread violence against Bihari taxi-drivers in Bombay.

The world over, immigrants have to conform to local cultural norms. In France, it is forbidden for schoolchildren to display outward symbols of religion — the hijab, turban, kirpan, cross, and so on. In Britain, there is a tightening of English-language requirements. In the US there are similar tough language and other requirements.

India’s internal migrants and their leaders should help their community, migrating from one to another part of India, to learn the local language and recognize local customs. Their children must learn the local language in school.

We should not legislate on this or impose rules making it compulsory, especially for adults. But we must encourage this. The media could play a useful role in propagating this than in exaggerating pictures of violence against migrants. People migrate, not to live in crowded and unhygienic slums, but to earn a living with dignity. They will go back when their original states are run better and there are better opportunities there.

Meanwhile, it is essential that there are voluntary attempts to learn the local culture and language. This would be a good way for migrants to live peacefully with the ‘original’ inhabitants.

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