The migrant issue is on the forefront again in the state after a threat by a militant organisation to have migrants leave the state, citing fears that there is a demographic invasion which is predicted to tip the population balance of the state sooner than later. The state government understandably is not taking the matter lightly, considering that in the past too, such threats had resulted in the heinous murders of several impoverished economic migrants from outside the state, mostly from the poverty stricken regions of Bihar, Orissa and Bangladesh. Since these migrants are spread out thinly all over the state, they are extremely vulnerable to attacks by the armed men targeting them, and there would virtually be no foolproof means for the police to protect them. For one thing, the migrants are mostly daily wage earners and unless desperate, they would not agree to be herded into police protected camps, setting up of which has become the normal recourse of the government in such circumstances, for then they would lose their livelihoods. But since the threat is there, the government would have no other way of reacting than to step up its area security covers in vulnerable zones, and this measure, the government has already ordered.
While we hope none of the savage tragedies of the recent past see a repeat, it is pertinent nonetheless to examine the issue from different lenses. There is no gainsaying that the current waves of xenophobia are shared by a sizeable section of the society. This is not always on account of the usual explanation of the danger of ethnic marginalisation of indigenous communities, but also for certain very peculiar economic reasons. The fact that the ones to most resent the presence of the migrants are local poor and not so much the rich should provide a clue. The rich sections would for many reason welcome the migrants for they provide cheap labour alternatives. The poorer sections, marked among others by exclusion from the white collar job market, on the other hand would see the migrants as usurpers of their opportunities. Desperate as migrants generally are, they also always end up dragging wages down, for they would be willing work for half or more of the local wage rates in order to be able to work. Outwardly, the expression of this resentment is not generally articulated in economic terms, but would be on the other hand translated into the much more easily understood plebeian language of ethnic hatred and xenophobia, with obscure street politicians catalysing and fanning this hatred for their own ends.
While the murderous flare ups are unfortunate and condemnable, it must be recalled the phenomenon is not peculiar to Manipur alone. It is repeated in all other states where economic migration takes place. Mumbai has seen a liberal dose of this malaise, so has Assam. As we have said, in many ways, deep down these assaults are not out of simply raw xenophobia. They can also be seen as an extreme and vulgar form of economic reaction. Such analyses are necessary so that the government would have more clues on how the menace can be tackled on a longer term. Our plea is, let the government not drop its guards. It is not just about embarrassment before the nation and world, but of the tragedy of senseless loss of human lives. In the short run, it must do everything to prevent these hate crimes. But it must have a long term strategy too and it is in this that the analysis of the causes of these tensions must become important factors. The labour market theory is one such, but also the deep insecurity of the local communities against being ultimately outnumbered by waves after waves of migration must also be addressed in a sublimated but substantive manner, for indeed this fear is not altogether without reason. The Tripura case is an example, and today so is Assam heading the same direction. It must be remembered demography in a democracy is directly linked to political power, democracy being in more ways than one, a number game. Some effective regulatory mechanisms to allay this fear must be thought of, otherwise, xenophobia and related hate crimes will continue to surface periodically and perhaps may even reach nightmarish proportions as in the case of the infamous Nellie massacre in Assam in the Naogong district 26 years ago on February 18, 1983 on the eve of an Assam Assembly election.