Sunday, May 4, 2014

Migration, refugees, and everyday conversations: Contradictions in yuppy dreams

Neha works for one of those offshore software production farms in one of those many cyberhubs that have sprung up in Shining India.

With a not so spectacular career, a degree from a C grade engineering college where her father donated Rupees 60 lakhs to get her in, the software job has been Neha's window into the world of opportunities that awaits the new India, with promises of economic growth, development, and global leadership.

Neha does not mind the late night shifts.

After all,  she works for an American employer and gets to interact with Americans. She likes the put on accent. She also enjoys the economic freedom. She can go mall hopping, eat at trendy places, check out one of the many discs, take vacations abroad.

All of this is made possible because of the deliverables of economic growth.

As Neha considers her career trajectory ahead of her, she thinks of earning an MBA from a US university. It is at this juncture I meet Neha.

The Indian elections are coming up and we get to talking about society, politics, and economics.

She shares with me how she is going to vote for a politics of change. India needs the right candidate to clean up the country.

She shares that a major part of the cleaning up has to do with tightening the porous borders of India and sending all the Bangladeshi Muslims who have been inundating the country back to Bangladesh.

She sees these "thugs" as threats to the country, its everyday functioning, and to progress. She reminds me that there are too many Muslims that have come in because of vote bank politics and they simply have no business being in India.

I ask Neha, "What makes you uncomfortable?"

She responds, "It's all these Muslims you know."

I ask, "What about these Muslims?"

Neha, "They are a threat to everything. They steal, they cheat, they rape. They make up all the problems of India."

A few conversation turns later, I ask Neha about her choice to apply to the US for a graduate degree and ask what she hopes to achieve after earning the degree.

With a glimmer of confidence, she shares that some day she wants to be a business leader in a US company.

I ask, "What if Americans look at you the same way you look at Bangladeshi Muslims?"

Neha responds quickly, "But I am not the same. I have earned my degree. I am going to give something back to the US. I am a professional."

I really don't want to burst her bubble of a dream of an American future, and I say to myself "But for many Americans, you are just like the Bangladeshi immigrant, a threat, a drain on resources, the other. Of course, there are plenty of other Americans who are working everyday on issues of immigration so people like you and I have an opportunity to participate in the US as workers."

I ask, "What are you going to give back to the US?" "For many Americans, you are simply taking their jobs." "Even more, for many Americans, your and my professional class, our origin, and our aspirations are reflected in the criminal behaviours of the Rajat Guptas and Devyani Khobragades, inherently corrupt and unethical."

Now Neha appears confused.

She shares she has never really thought of herself this way. She has never really thought that she, a hardworking professional, has anything in common with the Bangladeshi illegal immigrants she is critical of.

Wrapping up our conversation, I share with Neha stories from my own fieldwork, stories of hard labour shared by many Bangladeshi immigrant workers who have conversed with me. Stories of struggles simply to make a living and to support their families back home. Stories that are more similar to my story than different.

I share with Neha, "for many of the men I have conversed with, they work many times harder than you and I."

Unfortunately, Neha's story is the story of many middle class children of "Shining India." The hatred for the "other" nurtured by a Facebook-savvy campaign continually directed at circulating paranoia thrives on the power of discourse to obfuscate contradictions, to render common sense inherent inconsistencies, and to write over the hypocrisies of the aspiring yuppy class.

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