US politician and Obama’s first ambassador Timothy Roemer, a keen observer of demographic trends, rather dramatically describes the changes taking place in the Indian state of Punjab due to immigration from Eastern India and Bangladesh.
Based on his interaction with social and political leaders from the state, Roemer also noted that the Islamic religion — swept out from Punjab during the Partition — was also making a return with the migrants.
“Mosques in Punjab, once padlocked after the partition of Indian in 1947 and the ensuing mass exodus of Punjabi Muslims into Pakistan, are reopening and thriving,” he said, quoting Pradeep Kashyap, the Vice-Chairman of the US-based American India Foundation.
“It will bear watching how the Punjabi population (and the state government) react if the Muslim call to prayer becomes more pervasive across the state in the years ahead,” Roemer said in the February 2010 cable published by Wikileaks.
He was writing to Washington soon after violent clashes between ‘locals’ and ‘outside laborers’ in Punjab in December 2009.
Quoting others, Roemer pointed out that if it was the (mostly Dalit) workers from UP and Bihar who came in the first wave of immigration to agricultural Punjab, they are now being replaced by the even cheaper Bangla-speaking Muslims, presumably from Bangladesh.
For now, he points out, it is the economics, rather than religious prejudice, that seems to be winning, going by the acceptance of these laborers in a state that had the bloodiest history of Hindu-Muslim violence during the Partition of India.
“Punjab, on both sides of the border, experienced what we would call ethnic cleansing today. There were almost no Muslims left in Indian Punjab, today, that is no longer true. Partition based on religion seems irrelevant in the face of economics,” Roemer quoted Kashyap.
Many Punjabi business owners are grateful for cheap labor, praising migrant laborers for becoming “the backbone of both industry and agriculture in Punjab” after each instance of violent clashes in Punjab, Roemer went on.
“According to the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings, Ludhiana alone has 700,000 migrant workers. For Punjab as a whole, the numbers comfortably run in the millions. According to media reports, most of these laborers make between USD $80-$130 a month, and live in dingy rooms with eight to ten occupants to save money.
“Avtar Singh, general secretary of the Chamber of Industrial and Commercial Undertakings said that industry in the city is already facing a 25% labor shortage because migrants had left Punjab fearing increased violence. Industrial and agricultural organizations joined forces and urged greater security for migrant workers from state government officials,” Roemer reported.
However, not everyone in Punjab is happy about the change as Roemer also found out.
“Herkawaljit Singh, of the Punjabi language Ajit Group, echoed the discomfort many Punjabis feel with the rise of Muslim and Dalit migrant communities. He told PolOff that the migrants were “culturally different” from Punjabis and did not integrate into mainstream Punjabi society,” he pointed out.