Migration, Illegality and Citizenship

On January of 2020, 150 hutments on private land were demolished by the Bangalore municipality and police. This was done after receiving verbal complaints from neighbors that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants were staying there and converting the place into a slum. One of those affected was Nagappa, a migrant from Raichur in North Karnataka who works as a house keeper in a building nearby. He claimed that there were more laborers from North Karnataka living there along with migrants from West Bengal and Tripura. He asked the reporter, “Isn’t Raichur in India?” (K.R. 2020)

The misidentification of these migrant laborers as illegal immigrants was not an unfortunate coincidence or even a deliberate conflation born out of opportunism. Rather, it points towards certain similarities in the status of illegal immigrant and internal migrant laborers working in the unorganized sectors of India’s global cities. By one estimate, there are approximately 65 million migrant laborers in India. The number exceeds 200 million if one counts the seasonal migration. Most of these migrants work in export-oriented sweatshops, construction work, domestic work (highly gendered), and several other daily wage and low paying jobs in the unorganized sector (Nayyar et.al 2018). The first section of this paper seeks to expose both “illegal” and internal migration as consequences of the same colonial models of capital accumulation that dispossess those whose lives don’t fit contemporary ideas of Indian nationality. This is demonstrated using the example of the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal which displaced rural populations in both India and Bangladesh whose lives did not fit into Nehruvian ideals of modernity. The second part of the paper looks at how labor compliance was achieved both before and after neoliberalization. An example from Byculla slums of Mumbai is used to show how neoliberal governmentality produces ‘illegality’ as a sociospacial concept that operates on migrant laborers to render them as flexible labor for neoliberal capitalist exploitation. By doing so, this paper seeks to question and fundamentally reconfigure contemporary ideas of Indian citizenship and the movements that seek to defend it.

Separating illegality from migration
The Farakka Barrage in West Bengal is a 2.2 km long structure that lies across the Ganges near the border of Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time) and West Bengal. It was completed in 1971, and was meant to divert water into the river Hoogly in order to flush out silt at the port of Calcutta and provide potable water for the city. It was an idea put forth by colonial engineers which the Indian government had enthusiastically taken up after Independence (Banerjee 1999). There was no environmental impact assessment conducted. The Barrage was constructed by Hindustan Construction Company, one of India’s largest public-private construction companies which is headquartered in Bombay. The only dissenting voice against the construction of this “temple of modern India” was Kapil Bhattacharya, an eminent engineer who worked for the West Bengal government. In his 1961 report titled Silting of Calcutta port, he explained that the siltation of the Calcutta port was due to two other dams on the Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers (Chari 2016). He predicted that the Barrage would be ineffective in desilting the port of Calcutta and would in fact have catastrophic consequences for rural populations along the Ganges. Much of what he said turned out to be true (Banerjee 1999).

The diversion of water by India contributed to an increase in salinity levels, contamination of fisheries, intensification of drought and also the desertification of certain agricultural lands within Bangladesh. One-fourth of Bangladesh’s population depends on the Ganges but the Indian government refuses to come to an amicable agreement about water sharing (Hazarika 1994). The Barrage has contributed to a certain kind of ‘dispossession in slow motion’ in Bangladesh where farmers have no choice but to sell their land and migrate in search of work (Adnan 2016). A lot of them cross the border and come to Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

A critical oversight in the design of the Barrage was that its maximum discharge capacity was inadequate (Banerjee 1999). The slowing of the river has obstructed natural processes of desiltation and raised the level of the river bed. This along with mismanagement of the Koshi Dam has led to intense floods and displacement (Banerjee 1999). Bihar’s economy has been crippled due to regular flooding forcing many unskilled Bihari youth to migrate to metropolitan cities looking for work. Despite decades of regular flooding, the government refuses to alter the operation of either Farakka Barrage or the Koshi Dam, but instead offers relief packages after every flood.

The obstruction of the natural flow of the river has also led to river bank erosion in many areas upstream, displacing rural communities. The inability of the barrage to discharge enough water has also led to devastating floods upstream in Malda, Murshidabad which has displaced thousands of local inhabitants. They were neither given adequate compensation or rehabilitated by the government. Many of them migrated to a slum in Byculla, Mumbai and live among other Bengali-speaking Muslims. Here, they face harassment and are often charged under the Foreigners Act as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants.

Development-induced dispossession is hardly new to post-colonial states like India and Bangladesh (East Pakistan). Several of the laws that the British used for these purposes were carried forward. Following independence, the state acquired lands for ‘public purposes’, typically large-scale infrastructure and development projects. Between 1947 and 2004 alone, it is estimated that 60 million were displaced in India by these development projects (Adnan 2016). These are not merely similar to colonial patterns of displacement but rather are continuations of it. As Sankaran Krishnan says, “the way to modern nationhood can be only through the complete colonization of the self” (1994). Although these activities may not be directly aimed at this goal, capitalist projects result in the displacement and dispossession of individuals whose lives do not fit the hegemonic notion of national identity, which at the time was Nehruvian modernism. The Farakka Barage is a great example of this. It was a development project initiated towards reviving the port of Calcutta and supplying water to the city of Calcutta, both of which were beacons of Indian modernity. Using colonial techniques, the Farakka Barage diverted the hydraulic capital from rural/indigenous populations to serve the urban capitalist elite (D’Souza, 2014) while simultaneously freeing up land and labour to be put into the service of modern capitalism.

The onset of neoliberal globalization since the 1970s has led to a qualitative shift in the nature of capital acquisition and dispossession in India and Bangladesh. Although the state still directly dispossesses populations, the focus has increasingly shifted towards enabling capitalist elites, private corporations and multinational corporation (Adnan 2016). This has exponentially increased inequality and expedited the agrarian exodus and other processes of dispossession and displacement. However, all of these kinds of migrations that have happened historically can be viewed as consequences of a continuing colonial process of capital accumulation, even that of refugees from Bangladesh. The 1971 Liberation War, for instance, can be viewed as an act that opened up the Bangladeshi markets to Indian capitalism, even if that wasn’t the explicit intention.1 Such interpretations question claims of migration as a crisis and posit it as being ‘business as usual’ in the colonial state. Further, this case study highlights the mistakenness of looking at illegal immigration separately from internal migration. They are both products of the same processes. Illegality is a different construct altogether which acts on both of them to differing extents.

Making the displaced labour compliant
Labor compliance in post-independence India was essentially achieved because of the primacy of the nation-state over all other forms of community. In turn, this created a perception of common interest and community and attributed to the state a sense of organic solidarity beyond social contracts and pragmatic affiliations. This system – however exploitative in practice it might have been – legitimated the institutional authority of the nation-state. Ferdinand Tönnies called this sense of organic solidarity and community ‘Gemeinschaft’ (Cerny 1997).

However, the process of integration into the global neoliberal economic order has led to the erosion of notions of Gemeinschaft. Neoliberalism led to full commodification of the market and put increasing pressure on the state to dismantle welfare policies and deregulate labor. This undermined ideas of common interest and community which were fundamental to the legitimacy of the nation-state. Far from leading to a reduction in state power and involvement, neoliberalism and globalization have led to evolving forms of state control. The state plays a crucial role as a stabilizer and enforcer of the global neoliberal economic order (Cerny 1997).

The following section looks at ‘illegality’ as one such tool used by the state in service of the neoliberal economic order (Hiemstra 2010) to make the migrant labor compliant and provide flexible labor for capitalist exploitation. The case study that follows provides a basis to conceptualize ‘illegality’. The decreasing role of the state as a driver of economic growth also meant that it lost direct control over the conditions of employment in much of the economy (Mitchell, Mahy, & Gahan 2014).

Illegality as Neoliberal Governmentality
60 per cent of Mumbai’s population, the most populated city in India, lives in slums that occupy six per cent of the land. Byculla is one such district where six million slum dwellers survive on less than Rs.150 per day (Martin 2017). Noorjahan Mandal is a domestic worker from Reya Road area in Byculla. She migrated from a border town in West Bengal in the 90s. In 2011, she was working as a maid at a gated community. When an employer refused to pay her monthly due, she threatened to approach the domestic worker’s association. The very next day, Mandal was arrested by the police who had received a “tip-off” that she was an illegal immigrant. She was booked under the Foreigners Act and had to spend four months in jail before her friends and neighbors could arrange Rs. 15,000 for her bail. Although she had a ration card which showed that she had been residing in Mumbai for 20 years and a school certificate from West Bengal, it was insufficient to prove her Indian nationality. Mandal is among the many Bengali-speaking Muslims living in the slums of Mumbai. Long before CAA and NRC, the Maharashtra government has been threatening migrant workers with detention and eviction. Many of these workers are harassed by the police and marginalized by society. The process of booking people as foreigners is less an actual effort to rid the city of illegal migrants and more a form of capitalist violence that seeks to maintain the precarity of the lives of migrants. Booking under the Foreigners Act follow a well-oiled demand-supply chain where the police work in close coordination with dalals (brokers) who act as informers for the police, helping them meet their yearly quota of cases. Simultaneously, the same dalals also work as the rescuer for those reported and promise to rig the case for a fixed sum and get them released. For many who cannot afford to pay up, they lose the case and fall into a crack in the system where they can neither be deported or released and are hence stuck in jail. “Almost all of them are landless, Dalit-Muslim converts, illiterate and come from the poverty-stricken border districts of West Bengal”, says Archana Rupwate who worked with the Human Rights Law Network (Shantha 2019).

In this example, we can see how the perceived illegality of migrant worker’s existence in urban capitalist spaces functions as a deterrent against any bid to advocate for their rights. This is operationalized through the threat of incarceration and discrimination. Looking at neoliberalism through the lens of Foucauldian governmentality2 draws our attention to the microphysics of state power in everyday life (Butler 2004). Illegality is not just based in law but also everyday socio-politics which generate particular modes of being in the world (Hiemstra 2010). The illegality of migrant workers in urban spaced is not a mere by-product or collateral damage of a national citizenship project, but rather a technique of neoliberal governmentality in itself. Their perceived illegality in urban spaces restricts their mobility and visibility in public with a constant fear of discovery, discrimination and/or detention. It pushes them into spaces that are structurally, geographically, socially and politically peripheral leading their existence to fall further outside the purview of the law and consequently, also their claim to rights. In this way, national borders are loosened and pushed into local spaces to strip migrants of their rights (Hiemstra 2010).

They cannot bank on the local law enforcement when they discrimination or exploitation, neither can they unionize easily to bargain for better conditions. All because of the fear of sticking out that is created by neoliberal governmentality. For instance, a survey conducted across 22 Indian states in 2019 by the CSDS3 revealed that nearly 60 per cent of police personnel believed that migrants are naturally prone to committing crimes (Jha 2020). This demonstrates how illegality occupies the very bodies of migrants (Hiemstra 2010). What this means is that migrants agree to increasingly exploitative work conditions and wages which are often lower than that demanded by local labor. This artificially deflates the mean wage in the labor market forcing even the local laborers to compromise on claiming fair wages, albeit to a lesser extent.

The decrease in wages and employability that result from this often make the locals blame the migrant laborers as stealing jobs. Further, the urban and political elite also capitalize on this discourse of “migration as a crisis” to mask the neoliberal policies that enable their exploitation of all laborers. In this way, governmentality recruits the local poor, government servants and capitalist elites for the enforcement of ‘illegality’ upon migrant laborers in the unorganized urban labor markets.

This process of illegalizing migrant laborers has systematically distanced them from rights which are a fundamental entitlement of Indian citizenship. This has become strikingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic (Majumder 2020). While flights are chartered to bring back Indian nationals abroad, no such provision was made for migrant laborers. Most are not being paid the wages they are legally owed by their employers; they are being asked to pay rent by landlords and are evicted if they cannot pay. They cannot access local welfare systems – if they exist in the first place – because the state does not enforce the laws necessitating their registration. They are being brutally assaulted by the police if they are out in public spaces, incarcerated or killed when they try to leave the city and discriminated when they try to seek medical help. Although the country is in lockdown, the capitalist exploitation of these migrant laborers continues aided by neoliberal governmentality. Activists, NGOs and public interest groups have vocally opposed these incidents as a violation of the rights of migrant laborers as Indian citizens. However, there is reason to believe that this is not necessarily a violation of their rights rather than a reflection of it.

The idea of Gemeinschaft – a sense of organic solidarity and community – was crucial to the original Indian citizenship where one’s rights flowed merely from being part of the polis (Cerny 1997). However, the erosion of this idea during the process of integrating into the global neoliberal economy has generated new ways of being with the polis. In a recent article with The Wire, Arjun Appadurai posited that the age of citizenship is in its close and that one’s belonging to the polis depends entirely on their possession of documents granted and certified by the state. He calls this new political subject a ‘statizen’ whose rights flow solely from these documents. In this system, all are not equal statizens and the first victims are the poor, marginal, displaced, occupied and minor. He further goes on to say:

“The sacrality of the nation is about to be democratically eclipsed by the sacrality of the state. States will now define who belongs to them, they will war among each other for global resources, they will make cynical alliances, they will manipulate global capitalist possibilities – for resources, for technologies, for markets and for profits, all to advance themselves. And since authoritarian populism is the best way to assure compliant statizens, it is likely to be the hegemonic ideology of the coming decades.”

(Appadurai 2019)

Appadurai’s theory posits that extreme nationalism and right-wing populism are not ends in themselves (much like a trojan horse) but rather a means to secure voter blocks to democratically install this new anti-democratic statizenship regime as part of the global neoliberal economic order.

Going by this reconfiguration of citizenship, it becomes clear how systematically interconnected the problems faced by migrant workers and illegal migrants are. Any movement for defending secular principles including the anti CAA/NRC movements will necessarily have to actively advocate against the neoliberal economic order to be able to create any significant improvement in the conditions of the populations they seek to help. By bifurcating migration and illegality, this paper has also revealed those populations to essentially be the same. The population of disillusioned statizens actively dissenting in India is at one of the greatest it has been. However, going forward, this movement has to start fighting for labor rights as diligently as it has been advocating against extreme nationalism.


1 Even before the war, India was not a passive bystander. The R&AW actively trained and sheltered the Mukti Bahini which at the time was an insurgent force in Bangladesh (Hazarika 1994). The retaliation to whose activities from the Pakistani Army led to the genocide and refugee exodus. The Bangladeshi government established by India after the war would also go on to violently displace 50,000 members of the Buddhist Chakma tribe from the Chittagong Hill Trackts, who ended up as refugees in Tripura.
2 “Governmentality . . . operates through state and non-state institutions and discourses that are legitimated neither by direct elections nor through established authority. Marked by a diffuse set of strategies and tactics, governmentality gains its meaning and purpose from no single source, no unified sovereign subject. Rather, the tactics characteristic of governmentality operate diffusely, to dispose and order populations, and to produce and reproduce subjects, their practices and beliefs, in relation to specific policy aims” (Butler 2004)
3 Common Cause and Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) conducted a survey called  the Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR)


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