One day in the 1980s, my maternal grandfather was sitting in a park in suburban London. An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here?” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country??”
“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather, who was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, and was now retired in London. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.
These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonised us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their countries as “guest workers” – as if they knew what the word “guest” meant in our cultures – but discouraged us from bringing our families.
Having built up their economies with our raw materials and our labour, they asked us to go back and were surprised when we did not. They stole our minerals and corrupted our governments so that their corporations could continue stealing our resources; they fouled the air above us and the waters around us, making our farms barren, our oceans lifeless; and they were aghast when the poorest among us arrived at their borders, not to steal but to work, to clean their shit, and to sleep with their men.
Still, they needed us. They needed us to fix their computers and heal their sick and teach their kids, so they took our best and brightest, those who had been educated at the greatest expense of the struggling states they came from, and seduced us again to work for them. Now, again they ask us not to come, desperate and starving though they have rendered us, because the richest among them need a scapegoat. This is how the game is rigged today.
A world of migrants
Today, there are a quarter of a billion people living in a country other than they were born in. I am one of them. The whole debate around global migration is framed from the viewpoint of the rich countries: how many migrants should they let in, what kind of skills should they have, what color should their skin be? But I take the point of view of the migrants themselves. Why are they moving in the first place? Not because they hate their homes or their families or their culture or their language. But because the rich countries stole the future of the poor countries; through colonialism, corporate colonialism, war, and, most of all, climate change.
By 2050, up to 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change. Land that is home to 650 million people will be underwater, and 30% of earth, home to 1.5 billion people, will be desert.
And who’s responsible? The United States is 4% of the world’s population but is responsible for 1/4th of excess carbon in the atmosphere, Europe another 1/3rd. The average American uses as much energy as 35 Indians or 185 Ethiopians. The US military alone emits more greenhouse gases than 140 countries. Americans bear the greatest responsibility for historical emissions – and was the first country to have walked away from the Paris Accord. American industries continue to emit at will because Donald Trump believes that climate change is a Chinese-made hoax.
In June, temperatures in northern India hit 51 C. Many people roasted to death. A study came out from Stanford University last year. Since 1960, global warming has reduced the size of India’s economy by 31%, but increased the GDP of cold countries like Norway & Sweden by 10%, because they could grow crops and extract minerals in areas previously covered by ice.
Mass migration caused by climate change will be the defining human phenomenom of the 21st century.
So there’s an immigration panic, worldwide, a backlash against this migration. The west is being destroyed, not by migrants, but by the fear of migrants. In country after country, the ghosts of the fascists have rematerialised and are sitting in parliaments in Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary. They have successfully convinced their populations that the greatest threat to their nations isn’t government tyranny or inequality or climate change, but immigration. And that, to stop this wave of migrants, everyone’s civil liberties must be curtailed. Surveillance cameras must be installed everywhere. Passports must be produced for the most routine of tasks, like buying a mobile phone. It was fear of migrants that led to Brexit, the biggest own goal in British history.
But it’s not only the West that is suffering this immigration panic. It is also – and maybe to an even greater degree – India.
There’s a hysteria being generated today, originating in Assam but now spreading throughout the country like a cancer, of fear and hatred of Bangladeshis. Of Bengali speakers who were born here. Of the Rohingya. Under the National Register of Citizens fiasco in Assam, 2 million people are in danger of being stripped of their citizenship.
The government is now proposing a system of gulags across the country to detain millions of migrant families. Maharashtra wants one in Navi Mumbai. This, if implemented, will shame us as a nation. The Indian public won’t stand for it, the world won’t stand for it. The images are going to be horrific: children’s faces behind fences and barbed wire. Even the Trump administration had to rethink its family separation policy because of the blowback.
A lot of India’s standing in the world – the reason we’re included in the respectable nations, the reason our people and our tech companies are welcome all over the world – is that we’re seen, unlike, say, China, as being a democracy that protects its minorities. Like Brexit, the detention camps will be a massive own goal. It’s not only immoral, it’s stupid policy. The Assam NRC process cost Rs 1,220 crores and employed 52,000 government employees to produce a result that nobody’s happy with, not Assamese, not Bengalis, not Muslims, not Hindus.
I’m sure many Indians reading this have relatives living abroad or have lived abroad themselves. We complain loudly about anti-discrimination when it occurs abroad, as we should. But it’s the height of hypocrisy for India to be demanding fair treatment for its migrants to other countries – like the United Arab Emirates and the US – while treating migrants to India so shabbily. We have no standing to demand protection for the Indian diaspora abroad if we persecute the Bangaldeshi diaspora in India.
Diaspora in danger
As these stories get out, the entire Indian diaspora is put in danger. There are 100,000 “illegal” Indian immigrans living in the UK, and Britain wants to send them back here. India has refused to take them back. If we treat Muslim migrants so badly, what do you think will happen to Indians in Muslim countries like the Gulf or Malaysia? Already, when I complain about anti-Indian bigotry in America, I get emails and tweets saying, “Have you looked at the country you were born in? Have you seen what they do to minorities?”
The fear of migrants is magnified by lies about their numbers; politicians and racists train minds to think of them as a horde. In all the West, people – especially those who are poorly educated or rightwingers – think immigrants are a much bigger share of the population than they really are, and think that they get much more government aid than they really do.
A recent study found that Americans, overall, think that the foreign-born make up around 37% of the population; in reality, they are only 13%. In other words, in the American imagination, we are three times as numerous as we are in reality. The French think that one in three people in their country is Muslim. The actual number is one in 13. British people predicted that 22% of the people in their country will be Muslims by 2020; the actual projection is 6%.
It’s the same story in India. Data from the 2011 census demonstrates that the number of Bangladeshis coming into the country is actually falling. Only 0.4% of the country is foreign-born. The number of people living in India who were born outside the country fell from 6.2 million in 2001 to 5.3 million in 2011. And that dreaded Bangladeshi horde? There were actually 780,000 fewer Bangladeshis in that period. Don’t believe the Whatsapp rumors. There are nowhere close to 20 million Bangladeshis in India – the true figure, according to the Census, is around a tenth of that number.
When countries safeguard the rights of their minorities, they also safeguard, as a happy side effect, the rights and economic wellbeing of their majorities, or other minorities within the majority. If a judiciary forbids discrimination against, say, Muslims, it is also much more likely to forbid discrimination against, say, gay people. The obverse is also true: when they don’t safeguard the rights of their minorities, every other citizen’s rights are in peril.
Every majority is composed of a set of discrete minorities. When you go after Palestinians and Africans in Israel, the Reform Jews are next. When you go after Muslims and Mexicans in America, the Jews and gays are next. When you go after Muslims in India, the Christians and the Sikhs are next. The early targets are easy to hit, under the cover of nationalism. But hate, once fed, grows ever more ravenous. Its belly is never full; it is never satisfied after the first sacrifice.
Referring to migrants as”‘termites”, as Amit Shah did with Bangladeshi migrants, harks back to Nazi descriptions of Jews as vermin. These are human beings, not insects. They have children, they have parents; they have a favorite song and a way they like to comb their hair; they are capable of love and anguish. No human being is a termite. No human being is illegal. Amitbhai, bhaasha jara sambhari ne vaparjo.
I spent a lot of Maximum City reporting on the divisions created in Mumbai by the ’92-’93 riots and bomb blasts. I wrote about how they created walls between Hindus and Muslims; walls which exist to this day. And now, these walls have spread all over the country. The Bharatiya Janata Party claims it’s not anti-Muslim. But on issue after issue, whether it’s the NRC, or Kashmir, the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill which pointedly excludes Muslims, or the impunity with which mobs get away with lynchings, Muslims are being made to feel that this is not their country. It’s not just a matter of this or that policy; it is the language that the government uses about them, the deliberate affronts to their sensitivities. And not just the government; it’s widely shared by the people that elected the government.
It’s a terrible idea to “otherise” Indian Muslims. They are as Indian as you or me, whoever you are. No Hindu has the right to tell any Muslim – or Sikh or Christian or atheist – that he or she is not Indian. India is not a Hindu country, just like the US is not a Christian country. Deal with it.
Every Indian Hindu is part Muslim. Every Indian Muslim is part Hindu. And part Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain. Both my grandfathers were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But they had intimate knowledge of Islam: of their dress, their food, their culture. “The purest language is Persian,” my RSS-loving grandfather in Calcutta declared.
He had bigoted ideas about Islam, but when, during partition, a Hindu mob came into his shop after a Muslim who’d run there for shelter, my grandfather held off the mob at gunpoint. “This man is my guest, and you’ll have to kill me before you kill him,” he said. This is the wonder of being Indian: We are individually multiple.
Voting with their feet
It is this multiplicity that’s under severe threat today, the greatest threat I’ve known in my life. The language about minorities, particularly Muslims – in the press, in Parliament – is approaching incitement to genocide.
In 1947, 30 million Indian Muslims voted with their feet. They stayed in India. Today, we are the second-largest Muslim nation in the world. There are no Indian members of ISIS or Al Qaida. There’s no active jihadist movement, apart from a few fringe groups. Not yet. But what the government is doing is sowing these seeds of hatred, which will grow into the weeds of terror. The Bombay bomb blasts of 1993 were a horrific act of terror in which hundreds of people, Muslims and Hindus, lost their lives. The members of the underworld told me that they were retaliation for the anti-Muslim riots only weeks before. “We were not able to look people in the eyes in the trains,” middle-class Muslims told me. “After the bomb-blasts, we could look them in the eye.” It was, for them, a matter of dignity.
Even if you don’t like certain aspects of Islam, I’m appealing to simple self-interest. Can we really afford to alienate 200 million Indian Muslims? This could cause a civil war which will make Partition look like a schoolyard brawl.
A battle of narratives
A battle is being fought today in the public squares, at political conventions, on the television, in the opinion pages: a battle of storytelling about migrants and Muslims. Stories have power, much more power than cold numbers. That’s why Trump won the election; that’s why Hungary’s Orbán, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and the Philippines’ Duterte won power. A populist is, above all, a gifted storyteller, and recent elections across the world illustrate the power of populism: a false narrative, a horror story about the other, well told. The only way it can be fought is with a true story, better told.
I teach journalism, and the great gift of American journalism to the world is fact-checking. When I write for the New Yorker or the New York Times – and even for the Conde Nast Traveler or GQ – there are people who go over every line, call up every source I quote to make sure I’ve quoted them correctly, check every number. They save me from my worst mistakes. For my new book I hired a professional fact-checker to challenge me, and I have 50 pages of footnotes that back up the text.
It is this kind of fact-checking that can bust the phony narratives of immigration panic. Like the ones you see spouting from the mouth of Arnab Goswami. Imagine if he hired a fact-checker! Republic might never recover. Because it’s a contest of storytelling, the sworn enemies of the populists are people like me: journalists, writers. Truth-tellers. This is why all over the populist world – in America, Russia, India – there’s a war against the free press. All over the world, writers are being attacked, imprisoned, censored, like never before; their funding threatened, their taxes audited, their university jobs taken away.
In most countries, at most times, writers are defenseless. We are the easiest to attack, because words are not bulletproof. We do not have a vote bank, we do not command blind loyalty from our followers. We question, and urge our readers to question. We are soft targets. But tyrants and religious fanatics be warned: we become more powerful with time, and our words will outlast your mobs. Threaten us, and we will sing the truth louder; imprison us, and others will take up our chants; kill us, and we will come back with ten new heads.
But as a writer, such attacks come with the territory. In America, I get attacked for being insufficiently American; in India, for being insufficiently Indian. I was born in Calcutta, raised in Bombay, and grew up in New York. I am an Overseas Citizen of India. I’m also a US citizen. My early writing was a constant search for home: was it in India or America? Or in any of the other places I’ve lived – England, France, Brazil? I searched for home for a very long time. And then I found it.
I’m a writer, a very rich writer. I have made so much money from my books that I live in a palace. But I have roommates. I share it with many many people, fascinating people, each one of them. Since I am rich, my home has many rooms, and I feel free to move among its chambers, balconies, balustrades, turrets, dungeons, courtyards, gardens, fountains. The gardens are filled with songbirds of every hue; the fountains with iridscent fish, darting this way and that. There is music playing in every room, and dances in the grand ballrooms. There is nothing else in the whole universe like it. It is painted in beautiful shades of blue and green. My home is a palace, the most beautiful palace. The thing about my home: it’s your home too. I am the owner of this palace, but so are you and so are the waiters bringing you coffee and so is the rickshawallah outside. It belongs to everyone and no one. It belongs to you and it belongs to me. It is called the Earth.
Suketu Mehta is the author most recently of This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.