Friday, February 15, 2008

Roots of aggressive nativism in Mumbai: Myron Weiner revisited

This post is not about the merits or otherwise of MNS/Raj’s violent protest against migrants to Mumbai from U.P. and Bihar. Instead, it looks at the conclusions drawn from the similar nativist protests of Shiv Sena in the 1960s. I find that some of these conclusions are still relevant, and can help us to understand better why parties like Shiv Sena and MNS still find the nativist platform useful.

In my last post, I drew the readers’ attention to a letter critical of nativist protests against migrants, and how Myron Weiner had dedicated his book to this letter writer. But as Weiner admits in his preface, his deepest personal sympathies might be in favour of migrants, but his book took a balanced look at some of the costs and benefits of migrations to the local inhabitants of places to which the migrants moved. It is this balanced discourse which seems to be missing in the media in the wake of the recent Mumbai madness. Here, I am testing some of Weiner’s conclusions, in the light of today’s Mumbai. Weiner’s book studied not just Mumbai, but Assam, Chota Nagpur, Bihar, and Hyderabad as well.

Weiner saw nativism in India as a political response to conflicting forms of mobility: the spatial mobility of migrants and the aspiring social mobility of a social class within the native population. Weiner articulated the positive aspects of nativism thus: “Indeed, when one considers the alternatives (a secessionist or even a revolutionary, class-oriented response), nativism may well be among the least destructive choices, both for the political system and for individuals within it – for in one sense nativism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, as the principle of reciprocity serves to diffuse nativism.”

One of the conditions for nativism to thrive is that the local population should be immobile relative to other groups in the population. Out-migration from Assam, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Weiner found, was below the national average. Assamese were/are among the least-mobile linguistic groups in India. Mysore was at the mean, while Bihar was above average. (one needs to compare the 1971 Census figures which Weiner cites in his book with the latest, even though there may not be significant variations)

States with regions with a high in-migration and a high rate of out-migration tend not to have nativist movements. Neither Punjab, nor West Bengal has nativist movements, though they had the largest migrant populations of any states in India (14.2 and 15.7 per cent respectively in 1971). Bengalis and Punjabis were/and probably are among the most mobile people in India. A competitive employment situation locally may be tolerable if there are employment opportunities outside the region.

Areas with nativist movements experienced a rapid growth of educational opportunities for lower middle classes. This perhaps explains why many feel Marathis have made rapid progress in education, during the past two decades, and have improved their employment prospects.

To blunt the appeal of nativism, Weiner suggested adoption of alternatives to protectionist policies for governments committed to increasing the employment opportunities to the local population. Such an alternative, Weiner suggested, would be directed at enhancing the capacity of the local population to compete against outsiders.

Weiner believed that one could hardly fault a government for trying to find policies that would prevent a state from being divided by regional claims, or for pacifying local people anxious over the successes of migrants, or for coopting the platforms of parties winning elections on nativist platforms. However, policies that successfully diffuse social tensions and antigovernment activities also incur costs. The political costs of protectionist policies may be small, but the real losses are the costs in opportunity, those unseen would-have-beens that might have taken place if governments and citizens had been creative and imaginative enough to forgo short-term benefits for long-term gains.

One of the major questions for the Indian government, Weiner suggested, is whether it uses its authority to build an internal common market, with spatial mobility as one of its features, or lends its support to those groups that want government to puruse internal protectionist policies. He concluded: “India seems likely to develop with either set of policies; the question is, what kind of India will it be?”
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