Beyond Sons of the Soil
by Prakash Nanda on 13 Oct 2008 0 Comment

The periodic provocative remarks of “Maratha champion” Raj Thackeray against North Indian, particularly Bihari and Uttar Pradeshi migrants in Mumbai, have rekindled the so-called “sons of the soil” controversy. 

Usually, the phrase “sons of the soil” is considered a pejorative term because it implies “separation” from the national mainstream. However, such an assessment would be a simplistic one. Contrary to traditional notions, some dimensions of the phenomenon of “sons of the soil” are healthy and if sympathetically viewed and addressed, they promote the cause of national integration. Only when these dimensions are overlooked contemptuously, the phenomenon takes a nasty turn towards disintegration of the nation.

Bihar, over many years now, has been exporting manpower to many parts of the country. The middle and lower middle classes of Bihar, over the years, have become very “examination-driven.” Biharis have done really well not only in the IAS and IPS examinations but also in other states’ public service commission-conducted jobs. But it is a mixed bag when the jobs happen to be in the lower category.  

Bihari labourers comprise nearly 30% of Delhi's slum dwellers. They are an important component of Punjab’s agricultural success. In Tamil Nadu factories and Gujarat industrial establishments, Biharis constitute the bulk of the labour force. There are no protests against them in these states. In fact, they are welcome there. In contrast, there is massive antipathy against Biharis from locals in states such as Assam and Maharashtra. Why? 

Examples in some foreign countries will help us in a better understanding of the problem and in finding an answer. When Sri Lanka became independent in 1947, the two largest ethnic groups were the Sinhalese, with 74 percent of the population; and the Tamils, with 19 percent. The Sri Lankan Tamils were far better educated than the Sinhalese, and Tamils dominated both the higher civil service and the business world. In 1956, amidst an economic recession, the upstart Sri Lankan Freedom Party defeated the old guard United National Party in large part by blaming Tamils for getting the best jobs. Shortly after its victory, the new government legislated the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the one official language. 

The Act immediately caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to be under attack. Though it induced a Satyagraha among Tamils, it was not enough for making the ethnic division of the country acute enough to lead to a civil war that is continuing even today. All told, the Act essentially affected the upper sections of the Tamils. 

In reality, the seeds for division were sown when the Sri Lankan Government created the Gal Oya Development Board for settling landless peasants in this fertile area of the Eastern Province. At first, most migration was by Tamils and Muslims from poorer areas of the province. But then came a group of “Kandyan” Sinhalese villagers from the Central Province, and then mostly Sinhalese from other provinces. These Sinhalese received the better land.  The migration of Sinhalese into the Eastern Province activated among Tamils a sense of demographic threat, combined with the fruits of modernity being grasped by the migrants. Under demographic challenge, protest groups, parties, and self-protection (or provocation) militias began to form. This process led into the birth of the dangerous LTTE.  

Similarly, at the time of Partition, 95 percent of the population of Pakistan’s Sindh province was Sindhi. But by 1951, 50 percent of the urban population of Sindh was made up of Mohajirs (who came from India) whose mother tongue was Urdu. This proportion reached 80 percent in Karachi and 66 percent in Hyderabad. These migrants also took over the property of the Hindus who had fled to India. 

But State policy quickly entered the equation as early as July 1948 when the Governor-General of Pakistan ordered the separation from Sindh of Karachi (and the surrounding district), the seat of its provincial government, turning Karachi into a separate federal area under the jurisdiction of the Central Government. This meant a considerable financial loss for Sindh, as with the acquisition of Karachi by the Centre, Sindh was deprived of its most highly productive area from the point of view of its revenue-yielding capacity.

As a result, the urban-rural divide in terms of development widened, with Karachi receiving, almost exclusively, infrastructural support as well as new investment in industry and the manufacturing sectors, and rural Sindh being almost entirely ignored. Worse, the fact of a Centre dominated by Punjabis was further brought home to Sindhis in the form of Punjabi landholders who were occupying a substantial portion of the choicest lands in Sindh. Sindhis began to see themselves as sons of the soil, demographically challenged by Mohajirs and Punjabis. The resultant tensions have been such that many Pakistani analysts believe that Sindh may well follow the example of what is today Bangladesh. 

One can give similar examples of Chakma peoples in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh; the Moros in The Philippines; Uighurs in Xinjiang, China; and Achenese in Indonesia. The point that emerges from all this is that causes of national integration are not strengthened by promoting “migrants” to prosper amidst the poverty and backwardness of the locals.  

If in the name of national integration, if a Punjabi sets up a factory in Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh and fills up all posts of sweepers and clerks with candidates from outside the state, that is the surest way to promote national disintegration. In other words, “sons of the soil” slogan can only be confronted successfully by dealing more with the sources of migration (long decades of misrule, lack of land reforms, and the much deeper class and caste divides that further marginalise poor and illiterate people) than with its consequences. 

If Biharis face no problem in Punjab or Tamil Nadu or Gujarat, it is mainly because of the fact that there is a perennial shortage of manual labour, as more and more people graduate to better paying jobs in these states. But in a state like Assam, Biharis are targetted because the number of jobs they seek or do is shrinking fast, a problem that has been compounded by the influx of alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh. Similarly, there have been instances of resentment against Biharis trying for subordinate posts in the government and education sector in other states with substantial educated unemployed. A few years ago, the then Congress Government in Rajasthan decided not to recognise Bihar degrees as Biharis were flooding their subordinate posts. 

Viewed thus, if Biharis, or for that matter those from Uttar Pradesh, are being disturbed in Mumbai, then the real reason goes beyond the aggressiveness of Shiv Sainiks who, all told, did send a first-generation Bihari-migrant like Sanjay Nirupam (or a first generation Bengali-migrant like Pritish Nandy) to Parliament not long ago. It is sad that the overall economy of Maharashtra, once among India’s richest States, is not doing well. It will be worth analysing the migration pattern of poor Maharashtrians from rural areas to Mumbai in search of jobs that Biharis are doing. It is not just a coincidence that farmers in Maharashtra are committing suicide in a large scale. 
The author is a senior journalist                      

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