The ongoing immigration crisis knocking the door of the developed world is the second biggest crisis after the world wars. The last three decades of persistent war played out between the ‘civilisational forces’ of the west in the arena of west Asia has destroyed many countries. Millions of people have died and a sea of humanity has been left destitute.
The right-wing forces in the developed world, from Europe to America to East Asia, have found in this crisis a political opportunity. Call for heightened protectionism and sealing of borders are being made from electoral rallies. The victory of right-wing forces across the world in elections held in the past few years has reduced the chances of the crisis settling down.
If anything, the US policy that created a lot of furore, providing for separation of children from their family members at its border check posts with Mexico in order to create a deterrence for illegal migration is only the signs of the times to come.
It goes to show the power of human rights activists and the media that within two months after the policy was signed, it was revoked. But going by the news reports, much damage has already been done. Several families who got separated from their children may never meet again. The visuals and audio of children as young as three-month-old being kept in cages at child detention centres serve as eery reminders of the Holocaust. With the fear of losing a Republican majority in Congress that could set the ball rolling for Trump’s impeachment, the hyper-nationalism trumpet is not expected to die soon.
Migration is indispensable to human existence. It has the effect of replenishing human ingenuity. Since man was a primitive nomad, his needs have kept him on the move. The earliest homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers who went after their prey from place to place. As man discovered farming, the mechanism of shifting cultivation made him migrate to more fertile lands. After the more basic needs of food and shelter were secured, his curiosity about the world made him cross unfamiliar territories. He led expeditions for months through rough weather in search of new land and to test his traditional understanding about cosmology and geography. Thus, were born the Marco Polo, Columbus and Vasco da Gama of the world.
After repeated forays through the highs and lows of seas, he became a professional voyager. The richness of the discovered land made him establish trade ties with people he met. Curiosity followed trade. Trade accompanied intellectual exchange. The knowledge of the west met that of the east and vice versa. No wonder all the noted travellers of the past were considered philosophers in their own right. Their records made during their eventful journeys are amongst the earliest documentation of human knowledge. Megasthenes, Fahien, Huen Tsang, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun and numerous other philosophers through their scholarship provided an intellectual continuity from past to present. They left for us reservoirs of knowledge that hems through all the modern streams like arts, science, literature and philosophy.
Their works provide insight about the societies they paid visits to and cultures they came across. Travelling invariably was the only source of knowledge known to ancient man. It was said that must you travel to far off places like China for education. The knowledge of the east was highly regarded throughout the world. Ancient Indian seats of learning Nalanda, Takshila and Vikramshila were famous for their cosmopolitan outlook. Students from across the world sought universal education without having to face any institutional discrimination.
In the more recent history, the social churnings in Europe that started many a revolution and led to the foundation of modern-day societies were also inspired by the cross-cultural exchange. The same forces of migration that initially led to the subjugation of natives came into play to offer a strong resistance. The colonial history is replete with examples of writers, poets and barristers from across the colonies who came together to offer an intellectual critique of imperialism.
Gandhi’s African experience of struggle against apartheid was critical in shaping his resolve to fight colonialism. His travels across the length and breadth of the country in the first two years after returning to India familiarized him to specifics of colonial oppression. It was the same with Che Guevera, the Marxist revolutionary who travelled to far off places to understand the state of the countryside.
Apart from facilitating human subsistence, trade and commerce and intellectual exchange, migration was vital in the spread of religious ideologies. All the organised faiths that we practice today spread across the world thanks to the wandering seers and Sufis. The khanqahs that many such Sufis started in India stand till date as the true testament of humanity and brotherhood.
There is a verse in the Quran that talks about Fazeelat (success) in Safar (travel). Prophet Mohammad migrated from Mecca to Madinah (the event is called Hijrat (migration) and marks the beginning of the Hijri calendar, one which Muslims across the world follow) which saw the reversal of his fortunes. The idea of the world being a family was consistent in all religions of the time.
Vasudev Kutumbakam is oft-cited from Upanishads, a sacred book in Hinduism, to emphasise the virtues of universal brotherhood. The same was extolled by the faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Buddhism and Jainism that came up against the Brahmanical hegemony also advocated for the equality of man and love and affection for the entire world. Interestingly, this was the only spirit that ran common even among the non-believers of faith.
Once the more basic physiological and the intellectual needs were fulfilled, man became expansionist. In most cases, this was necessitated by his rising stock as was the case with the central Asian tribes. But this was not always the case. Equally powerful was his greed to be the ruler of territories where once he used to travel. The voyagers became conquerors and were soon followed by settlers. Europeans who had the early advantage of being proficient in sea trade became the dominant forces of loot and plunder. They split the world along the Papal line to carry on with their business of establishing global domination. What followed were indiscriminate wars between the native tribes and the invading forces.
The erosion of indigenous culture was the first most significant casualty, at the receiving end of which were the Native Americans in the west who inhabited the land mass across the Atlantic, the African tribes in the south and the Asian subcontinent in the east. The earliest settlers in North America were Europeans. They pushed the indigenous tribes to the deserts in the west from the most strategically located eastern coast. The injustice could be gauged from the fact that the Atlantic seaboard is amongst the most developed regions of the world today and the regions the natives inhabit amongst the most backward of places in America.
They advanced the practice of slavery in Africa to use them as labourers in their cotton plantations and to build railway lines to the nearest cities and ports.
It’s sheer thuggery when the white supremacists in the United States of America boastfully accuse the Mexicans and Columbians of being illegal immigrants. The Indian subcontinent had already been witness to earlier rounds of migration. In a historic judgement delivered in 2011, Justice Markandeya Katju said, “India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America… Over 92% of the people living in India are not the original inhabitants of India…The difference between North America and India is that North America is a country of new immigrants, where people came mainly from Europe over the last four to five hundred years, India is a country of old immigrants where people have been coming in for 10 thousand years or so.”
The indigenous tribes or the original inhabitants across the world have been universally classified as the common heritage of mankind. Yet it’s an irony that their struggle for recognition is lost in the din. The point is that humanity predates the idea of modern nation states. The story of human mobility is the history of humanity itself. Geographical boundaries of mountains, seas, valleys and deserts that naturally delimit parcels of land were the only check posts known to the ancient man. Right from being hunter-gatherers till the time this journey was about an intellectual exchange, man crossed these boundaries without fear or favour.
In his quest to organise people as nations, man delimited geography. But, for his cunning behaviour, he failed to preserve its sanctity. The state tried to instil in its people a sense of pride that came at the cost of hatred and animosity for others. It was a tacit attempt at curtailing the wisdom man had acquired over thousands of years that had made him humble about his own place in the world. The nations failed in ensuring dignified means of livelihood, equal distribution of resources and a just and liberal society.
This became the catalyst for another wave of migration. After the discovery of oil fields, west Asia became the centre of migration for people from the subcontinent. The massive development projects that transformed the Arabian desert to concrete blocks and shining steel structures were made possible by the subcontinent’s labourers.
The injustice meted out at the hands of the state through targeted acts like genocide and ethnic cleansing, mindless wars with invisible enemies and an imported idea of development left millions of people internally displaced and mass exodus from regions of conflict. Several others perished while trying to escape through the sea routes. Those who could afford to went into exile.
Migration came to be seen as the only ray of hope for the people in war zones, while the nations they were headed to saw them as a security threat. These same nations, however, were behind this prevailing crisis.