In search of an enemy: Soften national borders instead of demonising ‘illegal foreigners’ by *Sagarika Ghose
BJP and Shiv Sena may be on a collision course, yet they have one common feature: the perennial search for an enemy. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray used the war cry “Marathi manoos” against Tamils, Gujaratis, Muslims and later north Indians in general. For BJP and sangh parivar, from “Babur ki aulad” of the 1990s Ayodhya movement, to “Bangladeshi Muslims” today, the Muslim is the foremost enemy. While politicians keep creating enemies to build frenzied political movements against these enemies in order to grab power, the real need for people is to build trust. Without trust, as Amartya Sen has reminded us, there can be no vikas.
Enemy-focussed political mobilisation isn’t new. Indira Gandhi repeatedly invoked the “foreign hand” and “CIA agents” to delegitimise and demonise her opponents. In the 1983 J&K elections she even campaigned on a Muslim-separatist-as-national-enemy platform. In the 1984 national polls Congress political campaigns centred on anti-Sikh slogans. The 21st century avatar of BJP is characterised by the endless search for an enemy, whether that enemy is “anti-nationals”, “urban Naxals”, “half-Maoists” or now the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant.
Constantly focusing on enemies keeps public attention away from real issues and is an opportunity to pose as heroes while at the same time creating a fear psychosis and feelings of extreme vulnerability among followers. The claim to victimhood from this imagined enemy becomes a strategy to seize the nationalist high ground. Today, the “enemy” varies according to the regional context. In north India, the enemy is the “azaadi” shouting so called terror-sympathisers. In parts of Kerala the enemy is men waging love jihad, in Karnataka the enemy is Tipu Sultan, in Uttar Pradesh the enemy is those opposing the Ram mandir, in Gujarat the enemy is the underworld “Lateef”.
The common feature of these various enemies is that they are all Muslim, or sympathetic to Muslims. In the north-east, where BJP has scored impressive election victories in Assam in 2016 and Tripura in 2018, sangh cadres need a mobilising device and they have found this in the Bangladeshi Muslim, the new ideological enemy. Before the National Register of Citizens in Assam was released, the BJP government was considering a Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 allowing citizenship to various groups of religious communities from neighbouring countries, except Muslims.
Even though this appalling bill has thankfully been shelved, recently BJP minister Ashwini Choubey was heard outside Parliament arguing why Bangladeshis would be thrown out. A ruling party MLA has even gone so far as to pronounce that “Rohingyas” should be shot if they don’t leave India. BJP president Amit Shah has termed this new political enemy as the “ghuspethiye” or infiltrators.
The liberal democratic approach takes the focus away from “enemies”. Instead it focuses on the belief that the idea of the foreigner itself is alien to the idea of India, as embodied in the phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Wave upon wave of “foreigners” have made the subcontinent their home, been absorbed and become Indians. Instead of an NRC, a better way to discourage illegal migration is by making national borders softer not harder. This was attempted during a brief period of the Manmohan Singh years in 2005-06 with Pakistan, when Singh declared, “We need soft borders, people should be able to move freely.” The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was started in 2005.
South Asia has always been a free movement area for pilgrims, traders and merchants. If tightly sealed borders have not kept out the cross-border terrorist, there is no reason to believe that soft borders will necessarily mean opening the floodgates for suicide bombers. Instead if Nepalis or Bangladeshis choose to come to India (just as many Indians go to the US) to pursue a better life, this is actually a triumph of the idea of India.
Why are soft borders a good idea? If borders were softened, those who come to India to work may not want to live in India but could return to their families in Bangladesh. This is what many Nepalis do, as do labourers from Odisha and Bihar who journey to Gujarat or Kashmir for work. Tightly sealed borders mean migrants have no choice but to enter with their families as there is no guarantee that they would ever be able to return home. Sealed borders also spur organised rackets of various kinds to create fraudulent, forged identity papers.
Soft borders build trust and a mutual desire for open trade and commerce. There is also much greater scope for information gathering on national security and potential terrorist threats, because non-violent constituencies are built on both sides which need peace for trade. Bangladesh is hardly an enemy country but a friend and neighbour which has even gone to the extent of executing hardline cleric Motiur Rahman Nizami in 2016, for arms trafficking to India. Today politicians are busily creating a sense of fear of the “outsider”, but the real enemy is the lack of development which can be addressed if trade, commerce and people to people exchanges are made easier, not more difficult.
Sangh parivar politicians need the enemy of the so called Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant to further their political campaigns. But the real need is softer borders between India and friendly Bangladesh. Detention centres, drawing artificial lines between families and polarising rhetoric help politicians, not people. Soft borders require visionary statesmen but in an election year and competitive search for vote banks, demagogues have taken centre stage.
The article first published in Times of India *Sagarika Ghose