A demonstrator holds a sign during a march in London against exploitation of migrant workers. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
A demonstrator holds a sign during a march in London against exploitation of migrant workers. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

How can anyone imagine these glitzy glass-and-steel skyscrapers and trillions of dollars of projects across the region without the sweat and grit of those who built them physically?


[dropcap]E[/dropcap]xile is a dream of a glorious return. Exile is a vision of revolution. It is an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a ball hurled high into the air. Rushdie certainly has a way with words. If only he weren’t so twisted!

What is it about migration that is so fascinating? Even those who manage to never leave the homes, villages and cities they were born into, endlessly dream of one day walking out–dropping and leaving everything behind for that alluring, distant land of dreams; their own piece of paradise.

There is something enchanting and divine about the very act of migration. Prophet Abraham’s migration across Arabia thousands of years ago, Moses’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and the migration of the Last Prophet of course—they changed the course of history.

Migration occupies a special place in Islamic history and has huge emotional connotation for Muslims. The journey from Makkah to Medina came amid great danger and high drama and after 13 years of persecution at the hands of his own people.

This is why it’s considered a turning point in Muslim history and the Islamic calendar begins not with the birth or death of the Prophet but his migration (Hijrah) in 622 AD.  It wasn’t merely a passage from Makkah to Medina. It was a departure from darkness to light, from tyranny and oppression to freedom and peace and hope. A new beginning and the arrival of an idea that changed the world.

It also encouraged Muslims to strike out for new frontiers and traverse the world.  Ibn Batuta, who explored the known world a thousand years ago showing the way to footloose wanderers for centuries, was but one manifestation of that pioneering spirit of discovering the world.

Indeed, we are all travelers and migrants—in some way or the other.  Some migrate to escape their hopeless circumstances, poverty, oppression and persecution; some do it for a better life, greater opportunities and their place in the sun.  Some merely want a change of scenery, as it were.  But wherever they are, in the words of Aeschylus, men in exile feed on dreams of hope.

It is hope that drives people to take that first bold step on a thousand mile journey fraught with uncertainty and unseen great odds.  They brave high, stormy seas on ludicrously low and precarious dinghies and boats to get to that land of their dreams and opportunities at the end of the rainbow.

It’s the same hope that drives people from small villages and towns, leaving farms, homes and loves behind, to cities like Mumbai, Karachi, Delhi or Dubai.   Cosmopolitan cities like Dubai, Mumbai, London or New York do not belong to a particular state or people. They belong to us all.  They make you feel at home, whoever you are or wherever you come from.

This is why the frequent ruckus over ‘outsiders’ by outfits like Shiv Sena or its offshoot MNS is so disingenuous. Sena has already squeezed the last drops of political mileage out of it. First it was the South Indians and then the Muslims who became the target of the toxic politics of the Thackerays.

However, the days of such low-grade, cynical politics are truly well and over. These tactics may have worked in 1960s, ’70s and even ’80s but they do not anymore in the 21st century India—or for that matter in any other country.

More important, in today’s wired and webbed world, man-made borders and walls have lost all meaning. Cities and countries that shut the doors on their own and others will meet the same fate. Today Indians, and South Asians in general, are recognized the world over for their dedication and enterprising spirit. How ironic is that they should find themselves unwelcome in their own country?

But then desperate men turn to desperate measures.  The invention and demonization of the Other is apparently the shortest way to political and electoral windfall.

That is why from Mumbai to Manhattan and from Spain to Sweden, the vilification of the Other, in this case migrants, comes easily to politicians. Migrants are the convenient and inviting target everywhere.  Higher rents? Fewer jobs? Growing crime? Corruption? Blame it all on the migrants.

Ironically, most of those complaining about the outsiders taking away their jobs and being an unwelcome burden on their economies themselves came from somewhere else. Many of those raising a storm over ‘outsiders’ not long ago moved to Mumbai from distant towns and villages of Maharashtra and neighboring states.

By the same analogy, those constantly complaining about “foreign invaders” (read Muslims) too came from distant lands.  India is indeed a nation of immigrants, like America is.  Indeed, its culture and civilization, evolving over the past five thousand years, is richer today because of the wave after wave of migration the country has attracted for centuries.

Similar double standards prevail in the United States. Those demanding a total closure of the country’s borders and freeze on new arrivals today had come in similar fashion, looking for opportunities and a new life.  From the Spanish conquistadors to the Boston Brahmans of New England, who can claim be the true inheritor of the land of the free?

Those who can, are hardly seen anywhere.  No other race has perhaps been so systematically cleansed and obliterated the way Red Indians or Native Americans have been. Today, they are seen only in some protected areas like an endangered species which they are.

Down south in Latin America and Africa or the other side of the world in even in Australia, it’s the same story of endless exploitation the empire.  But the West has no monopoly over this exploitation and the vilification of invented enemies.

Whoever we are and wherever we are, we are compelled by this need to find or invent some ‘alien’ or the other so we can dump all our insecurities and problems at their doorstep.

When some talk of an ‘Asian tsunami’ threatening the Gulf, they tap into the same reservoir of insecurities. This concern is perhaps understandable when you are outnumbered by expats to a ratio of 20:80. However, if the expatriates are here, it is not just because they needed these jobs but also because their expertise and services are needed. This is a two-way street.

If the expats have benefited economically and enjoy a lifestyle that is the dream of many of their countrymen back home, host societies have benefited from their expertise.  In fact, their hard work has played a key role in the amazing economic progress of the Gulf.

How can anyone imagine these glitzy glass-and-steel skyscrapers and trillions of dollars of projects across the region without the sweat and grit of those who built them physically? Every time one sees them toil tirelessly in extreme weather conditions, one is filled with pride.

They deserve our gratitude for doing what they have been doing. For they are humanity’s soldiers. They travel thousands of miles from homes, live alone and put themselves at great risk so their loved ones back home could have a decent life. Few sacrifices in the world can match this.

So next time you think of throwing out someone as an outsider, try to remember that we are all migrants — wherever we are, in Mumbai, Manhattan or Dubai. The world is beautiful and big enough to accommodate all of us.  It belongs to us all. No man is an island.


Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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