The consternation among political parties over the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is a vantage point from which we can discuss capitalism’s Achilles’ heel: culture and identity. From an economic and market perspective, the religious or ethnic identities of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh do not matter. Most of them, including those facing religious persecution, are here because our economy needs them in some way.
The 1.9 million exclusions from the NRC list have sparked controversy for different reasons among different groups. The Assamese believe that the numbers are too low and understate the problem of illegal immigrants; the Bharatiya Janata Party frets that the numbers of “persecuted” Hindus excluded are too high; nominally “secular parties” think that so many Muslims being excluded is a blot on India.
In the bastions of capitalism, from the US to Europe, Japan and China, there is serious opposition to the free flow of one key factor of production—labour.
In culturally homogeneous capitalist countries like Japan and China, they allow almost no migration at all. Japan is paying the price for it through economic stagnation, and China will pay the price sometime later.
To repeat an oft-mentioned truth, migrants play an important role in any capitalist economy for they are willing to do what other citizens are not. Or, at any rate, are willing to work for wages that employers find viable.
If you claim to believe in market economics, then you are a fraud if you think only capital and technology should be allowed to flow freely across borders. Land cannot be moved, but foreigners can invest in land and property through the use of capital. Only labour is barred, largely due to non-economic reasons like culture and xenophobia.
However, it is pointless to label resistance to immigration as just xenophobia—a purely negative term. The reason: when something is so inherent to being human (we prefer people like us to those who are not), giving it a pejorative label is problematic. Rather, if capitalism and free markets are to succeed, we must accept that barriers exist in the case of labour movement.
This can have several negative outcomes. If labour is denied free movement, logically countries that export labour will ultimately resist the movement of capital and technology. Capital and technology often replace labour in the short run, and if capital movement is free, jobs in the home country can get impacted. Many countries, including India, still have controls on free capital movement and ownership of property and land for this reason. This rule operates even within countries. Indians cannot own property and land in Kashmir—hopefully this will change after the abrogation of Article 370—or Nagaland or much of the North-East, or in several tribal areas. This wall to prevent the movement of capital and labour is a major reason for the relative underdevelopment of these states. Only “social activists” who believe they are preserving some pristine form of local or tribal identities benefit from this blockade.
Can capitalism coexist with people’s cultural resistance to immigrants? Donald Trump wants to change laws that allow someone born in the US to claim a right to citizenship automatically. Even though this sounds discriminatory, one should ask whether laws related to citizenship legislated in the heyday of mass migration and colonization of sparsely populated regions should not be re-examined. The laws need to change since the primary resistance to migrant workers is not just over a cultural shift, but also because they will become citizens over time and alter demographic and power structures.
The only way to square the circle in order to keep capitalism alive and kicking is to separate the right to work across borders from automatic rights to citizenship, including citizenship for children born to immigrant parents. Citizenship and the right to vote should involve much greater scrutiny of the levels of cultural assimilation possible, so that local resistance is minimized.
In India’s case, there is almost no opposition to one group of migrants (Nepali Hindus, for example, who can move in and out of India at will), but high resistance to another (the entry of Bangladeshi Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Bangladeshi Hindus who may be here because of persecution in their home country).
The logical solution to the problem of illegal migrants from Bangladesh is not deportation but their removal from voter lists in the short run. This way, there would be no economic disruption either to migrants or the local economy. Those who came because of religious persecution can be given special treatment as refugees, with quicker entitlements to citizenships. Citizenship should come with a cultural rider—a willingness to assimilate with the local population. In this context, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, with minor changes in wording and phraseology, is not a bad way to go about it. There is no need to say that only Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians will be entitled to its benefits, when the phrase “minorities and other persecuted segments” will do just as well. India’s secular parties are wrong to oppose it.