Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Day 10: Immigration & Other Important Matters

I am ten days into my planned period of transformation and I see some benefits already of having such a transformational goal. To be honest, how I conduct my life hasn't changed much. I have done better in the last few days, despite the fresh snow that arrived today. But, though the details have not changed, I think I got a sense of purpose - and it does help that I keep reminding myself about it every time I write this blog - and the days, though slow, are not being wasted in that sense.

The snow did affect my plans for the day significantly. I changed my plans and called off my engagements in Birmingham, partly because of an almost flu sort of a feeling and the daunting prospect of going out in the cold and snow. The judgement proved correct: The fever arrived and the snow stopped the rail transport from and to our station altogether by the mid-day. So, the day was quickly reduced into writing mails and contracts, planning and reading news.

What I read today is full of surprises. Let me start with one end. David Cameron is all set to become the Prime Minister in next few months, or may be not. It is a bit of a see-saw in British politics now, and the only thing that is keeping the deeply divided and generally clueless Tories together is the promise of winning an election. [Funnily, what is dividing the equally clueless and completely out-of-touch labour party is the prospect of losing the election.] I saw David Cameron is making a bold promise to the electorate to cut immigration by 70% if he comes to power. I am sure he will find it a convenient promise to meet: Now that Britain is in a recession and people are actually leaving the country, he will possibly point at the number of net migration and prove to the world that he is a man of his words.

I am actually sad that immigration dominates public discourse in Britain in such a perverse way. All three parties are united on this one issue, that immigration is bad and must be curbed. Gordon Brown talks about 'British Jobs for British Workers'. David Cameron is obviously the poodle of extreme right on this issue, and he keeps painting the immigrants as those lazy gits who live on benefits and generally undermine the glorious culture of Britain. The Lib-Dems are possibly less vocal about immigration, but then the corrupting effect of democratic politics is also pulling them into the tabloid dictated public thinking: I was rather dismayed to see a Lib-Dem MP complaining on TV that council parking spaces are running out because of immigrants.

The problem is that most of this is untrue. Yes, there was a wave of immigration in 2004, when Britain allowed people from new EU countries to come to Britain and work without visa controls. But that is past now and currently many people who came then are going back home. The non-EU immigration to Britain remained largely driven by economic migration, which remains a rather small number in the scheme of things, and the public fear that non-EU economic migration will push the British population over 70 million [from the current 60 mil] is utter nonsense.

Besides, most immigrants, quite obviously, are of an economically productive age group. Britain needs the demographic push, as its population ages. Besides, on an universal level, I can't remember a country which was ever impoverished by economic migration. In fact, I can cite a number of countries which benefited from it, particularly America, where great progress was powered by great minds migrating out of Europe in the first half of last century, and from China and India in the last thirty years. I know the European societies are fragile, old, class based societies and they want to keep it that way. But where is the leadership, the ability to tell the truth and be able to a chart a realistic path, either from the Government or the opposition.

In fact, staying on the migration issue, there were a few interesting things happening over last few days, which needs to be mentioned here. A Muslim lawyer based in London wanted to stage a protest march through Wootton Bassett, an Wiltshire town where young people have a tradition of joining the British Army, and as a consequence, the town has taken a disproportionately high number of casualties in recent British military misadventures. Mr. Anjem Chowdhury, the London Lawyer who speaks with a perfectly anglicized accent, heads an organization called Islam4UK, and wanted to march through the town with coffins, signifying the human tragedies in Afghanistan. The tabloid press indeed found it offensive and an insult to the dead heroes, and the Government, living in the mortal fear of the tabloid press, ended up banning Islam4UK.

I must admit that my exposure to this affair is through daily news. What I understood to be the point Islam4UK was trying to make is that there are deaths on both sides, and in death, everyone seems to be equal. In a roundabout way, the choice of Wootton Bassett was not about insulting the town and more about showing deference, perhaps, to the town and highlighting the meaninglessness of death. This made perfect sense to me, and I am still unable to understand the offence it caused. Are the ministers saying that the dead in Afghanistan, many of whom are admittedly civilians, are not equal to the dead in Britain? And is that because the dead are Asiatic? I am also troubled by the fact that the Government ministers chose to ban Islam4UK, though it seems that the only thing the organization has done is planned a protest march.

The problem is that this shows more about the current state of society in England than anything else. I somehow see a seize mentality - in both these affairs - that is dominating the public discourse. I noted some other bits of news with a bit of irony: That a Sikh man, a first generation immigrant, was stabbed to death in East London as he had the courage to chase a few muggers, and Mukul Assaduzzman, a Bangladeshi Taxi driver in New York returned thousands of dollars of cash left in his cab and refused to accept a penny as reward because he is a devout Muslim and thought he was only doing the right thing. [Read the story here] Yet, migrants will be painted as the dishonest, lazy people living on benefits by popular imagination, and if someone is Muslim and therefore a teetotaler, he would be seen as undermining the great British tradition of binge drinking and rowdiness. We indeed live in a very strange world.

I shall summarize now: When a society tries to close its door and tries to define itself by its past, it starts its own irreversible decline. And, here is an wish, following on from that observation, for India: Let us be open and welcoming to diverse and travellers of the world, because the future will define us.

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