The middle class, the nearly poor and the very poor – Bangladeshis choose their migratory destination according to their class status and region of origin.
Historically, Bangal has been both migrant – recieving and sending zone. From the middle ages onwards, migrants of all races and types came to Bengal to work or rule, to this region of Ganga Brahmaputra delta. The place was under the sway of numerous South and North Indian warrior clans before the Central Asians took over.The first dynasty rulers of Bengal were the Buddist Palas, who were suceeded by Hindu Senas, who in turn were outsed by Muslim Turks, Pathans and Afgans.
Among these migrant rulers, it was Central Asians who had a profound impact on Bengal, and their considerable part of their culture and religious practices entered the social order. Later, the colonial British arrived as migrant rulers, establishing a model of governance which continues to dominate till date.
From the earliest era, the successive ´foreign´ rulers hired expatraits for the topmost jobs, which encouraged the marginalisation of Bengalis from power, and also discouraged the growth of a local commercial class. The local sought patronage and jobs as the safest route to the economic survival , and became professional clerks and teachers. British rule and education thus created a Bengali middle class, one which could not survive within Bengal alone. The Bengalis babus , the originals, fanned out to provide the colonial administration with manpower. The British created a new land man¬agement system, which created a demand for lawyers, which once again the Bangalis satisfied all over. It created an animosity with other members of the Indian society, which still resonates, though by now the Bangalis have become the new backward people.
While the middle-class migrated for assured jobs, more and more Bangalis were shifting homesteads for survival. Even before the land pressure really built up in the deltaic region, the peasantry had become mobile in search of something, somewhere a little better. The lesser classes mostly ended up in outlying coastal districts and the remoter areas inland. As Bengal became poorer, there were fewer coming in, and more leaving.
Assam, lying to the north of the Bangali heartland, was at the receiving end of migration for a long time, from the impoverished areas of undivided Bengal which sent forth “cultivators of the unfilled lands”. But the experience was not untroubled, and communal politics increased over time and stretched till the Partition of 1947, when Assam and the contiguous district of Sylhet saw serious distur¬bances. Assam had a referendum, and the Muslim majority Sylhet joined Pakistan, leaving a bitter legacy. It was in a sense their own partition, quite outside Bengal politics.
Migration from the regions close to Assam has been quite significant. Sylhetis, whom some scholars now describe as a separate non-Bangali (but associated) ethnic-linguistic group, are one of the more visible migrants anywhere in the world. Most Bangla migrants in Great Brit¬ain are from the one region of Sylhet, and most owners of ´Indian´ restaurants there are likewise Sylhetis.
While migration to Britain has been more organised and successful—there is even a Bangali baroness in the House of Lords—most Bangalis are now crowding into the United States and Canada. Both countries have a legal annual intake system for a few thousands, but millions who can afford to apply, do so every year. The migration lottery run by the US gov¬ernment is an event of major significance in Bangladesh. Legally or otherwise, thousands of Bangalis do make it over to North America, to join the bottom of the totem pole of South Asian diaspora—even though the US ambassador to Fiji happens to have made good as a first generation Bangali.
For the nearly poor, the option is short-term migration to West Asia to take on menial jobs left untouched by other South Asians. Or else, work as construction and plantation workers in Malaysia; as also in Singapore and Brunei. For the very poor and desperate, however, there is only India and Pakistan. Noakhali, lying on the coast, is one example of a Bangladeshi district where the land-man ratio is quite adverse, and so the people have fanned out to many parts of South Asia and beyond. They form the bulk of the workers manning the Karachi fishing industry, and fill the ranks of domestics in Karachi homes.
In Pakistan, the Bangalis have melted into the cities and have thus far escaped being targetted as they cannot be politicised and would fit no fill or swell any vote bank. They are too poor, and all too willing to do the jobs the Pakistanis won´t do. The Bangalis in Pakistan are thus the invisible lot, relatively few in number, and without any stake in political issues. But in India, the Bangla migrants constitute a political and economic threat as perceived by a large number of people, including in the administrative and political leadership.
A recent Doordarshan production focussing on migration of Muslim Bangladeshis, especially to Assam, had many voices describe the impact of this process. The Governor of Assam went so far as to call this migration “a national threat”. An official of the Home Ministry agreed and said that border fencing had begun to show results. The television report had the image of a bearded man in his forties as its motif, and included a call to all Indians not to hire migrants and to report them as part of patriotic duty.
A different and more realistic position was held by journalists B.G. Verghese, Kuldip Nayar and Sanjoy Hazarika, who were firm in their conviction that migration would not stop until the source of the problem—endemic poverty in Bangladesh—was tackled. The answer, they said, lay in helping Bangladesh progress economically so that it made more sense for the migrants to stay home. No amount of “border management” could stop migrants who wanted to cross over.
India, certainly, has the right to prevent non-Indians from coming into its territory, a basic right of any nation-state. The fact that many Bangladeshis do look like Indians coming from the eastern region makes detection difficult. But it has to be recognised that, at the end of the day, the problem of migration will not go away by tightening borders, which will be an impossible exercise. And, given the existing situation within Bangladesh, for many the future will continue to He outside Bangladesh.
Open secret, collective denial
The Dhaka government´s position on migration to India is that it does not happen. Admitting that migration exists would lead to Bangladesh being asked to take back those identified by India as illegal aliens. Since the number of such illegal migrants could be rather high, the only way out is denial. The political and economic price of accepting those pushed out by India would be very high indeed.
Because of national exigency, therefore, there has been no official policy or point-of-view on the matter of Bangladeshi migration. It is an open secret covered by a blanket of collective denial and ´let it be´ attitude. Surprisingly, even scholars have not conducted studies and presented analyses on the how´s and why´s of the mass migration of poor Bangladeshis into neighbouring India. The focus in academia and among ngos has been on the trafficking of Bangladeshi women and children, an issue which finds a sympathetic chord in many quarters. Meanwhile, the much larger issue of pov¬erty-pushed migration does not get the attention it deserves.
As far as the impoverished migrant to India is concerned—who doesn´t remit dollars home—the only people who seem to want to bother about them are those who would like them to return. And so, India makes noise about the Bangladeshi migrants. Meanwhile, like all marginalised people, the migrants in India suffer the fate of not even being acknowledged by the state that is supposed to be their own.