Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Politics of Silence and ‘Invisibility’: Methodological Dilemmas of working with Undocumented Bangladeshi Migrants in Delhi

Priyanca Mathur Velath
[a member of APRRN, IASFM and an alumni of the CRG Winter Course on Forced Migration, Velath is currently completing her doctoral thesis on the rights of development-induced displaced persons in India at CSLG/J.N.U, New Delhi]
Saba Hussain
[(an alumni of the CRG Winter Course on Forced Migration, Saba is currently working as a social development consultant with a Delhi based consulting firm TARU. She has studied Sociology at Delhi University and Development Studies at London School of Economics]

Informal Bangladeshi workers, living in Delhi and its suburbs, have had many tags attached to them – ‘poor’, ‘illegal’ and lately also ‘terrorists’. These adjectives refer to the debates on poverty, illegal migrant and remittance flows and securitization of migration that have been heaped onto the Bangladeshi migrant flows into Indian soil post 1971. Recently intolerance and xenophobia have been added to the debates. (Ramachandran, 2004; 2005, Ramachandran and Crush, 2009)

Moreover, the conflation of the migrants with illegality, crimes and terrorism coincides with the larger urban security paradigm of segregation of the poor This phenomenon is amply illustrated by the policing and surveillance drives culminating into ‘clean-up’ of the poor, mainly floating migrant populations, being conducted in the run up to the recently concluded Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2010 in Delhi. This article intends to revive the discourse on the fieldwork anxieties that emerge when research is attempted on them, by drawing upon the authors’ own experience of working with Bangladeshi migrants across slums in Delhi, before and after CWG.

Politics of ‘Silence’ and Inclusion

Undocumented population movements between Bangladesh and India have heightened the focus upon (in)security, and have forced most of the Bangladeshi workers to illegally acquire citizenship ‘proofs’ or documents. While all the members of the elder generation of Bangladeshis that had come into India post 1971 proudly showed the ‘ID Card’ that late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had issued to them, many in the younger generation claim to have been born on Indian soil. Majority of the Bangladeshi migrants encountered by the researchers had procured signifiers of citizenship such as – Voter ID Card, Ration Card and PAN Card that not only enabled them get certain state sponsored privileges but also the ability to contest claims of their ‘Bangladeshi-ness’. Seen in this way, the monolithic notion of being a citizen is being silently replaced by ideas of ‘becoming a citizen’ through not essentially formal or legal measures (i). The increasing demand for supply of cheap informal labour to the bourgeoning Indian middle class, in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, ensures a continuous ‘pull’ of their services as housemaids, rickshaw-pullers, people entrusted with recycling and garbage disposal, etc.

Number Politics

However, on an issue as commonly debated as this, the lack of any authentic data in terms of reliable numbers is striking for any social researcher. Putting a figure to the number of Bangladeshi migrants living in India is virtually an impossible task. The option of data sources available to the researchers range between the controversial figure of ‘20 million’ quoted by then Governor of Assam (Sinha, 1998, Indian Express 4th Oct 2009), 15 million (Dutta 2004) to a substantially lower 3 million (Census 2001 Report), 3.8 million (Buchenau 2008) to the other end of the spectrum where the Bangladesh government claims that “there is not a single Bangladeshi migrant in India” and maintains “India allowed the migrants to live in its territory for many years, even issued official documents, therefore, these migrants ought to be treated as Indian citizens” (Ramachandran, 2005). Besides, the number and inclusion game plays out when their ‘floating’ populations are used as pawns in vote-bank politics in states like West Bengal.

Working Amidst the Visible Symbols of ‘citizenship’

The problem of lack of data sets on undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in India is further complicated by the very dynamic of the relationship of the migrants with the Indian State. While transborder flows between India and Bangladesh question the idea of nationhood (Samaddar, 1999) and citizenship for the migrants, they also redefine the nature of encounters with the state.On one hand, the migrants themselves view the Indian state as the coercive force behind slum demolitions or periodic rounding-ups of young men for interrogation, and so on.On the other, the same state is seen as the protector or benefactor depending on how well it has been negotiated with.

The authors were constantly grappling responses that reflected the Indian-ness of the respondents. This often deflected the focus away from the areas of research interest around the myriad issues involving the process of ‘becoming Indian’--everyday encounters with the state, the moral economy of protection and patronage, (Chatterjee 2004) and their experience of living and working as migrant men, women and children. And in moments of covert national identity cementing exercises like the CWG in Delhi, the migrants and their groups develop an almost organic strategies to survive through strong information sharing networks, techniques of geographical segregation and camouflage including fake identities and names, adoptions of cultural symbols (like the bindi worn by the majority Hindu women), local dialects and so on. For a social researcher situation like these are equally both intriguing and challenging.

What was striking was that the first step towards inclusion invariably was a lie - on place of origin. The younger and newer migrants in Delhi insisted that their ‘home’ was in the districts of Malda, Nainital or the state of Assam in India. The older generation, resting on the confidence of their ‘Indira Gandhi I-cards’, were more open to revisit their memories of their ardous journey that had forced them to leave their homeland and seek a better life across its borders.

Politics of ‘Invisibility’ or Exclusion

Physical exclusion – pushed to the periphery
Ethnically dominated localities, usually mark all megacities, such as New York’s China Town or London’s South-Asian hub of South Hall. In case of Delhi also it wasn’t very difficult to broadly locate the areas inhabited by Bangladeshi migrants—Govindpuri slum, Nizamuddin Basti, Khadar Colony, Alisia Mor (in Gurgaon). These areas form the periphery of affluent urban (upper) middle class localities of South Delhi, Yamuna riverbank and the gated communities of Gurgaon, which are serviced by the workers from these peripheral localities-mostly slums. Within these slums too, many a times Bangladeshis were found to have been pushed to the outer margins, into lower class professions like waste-disposal e.g., the ‘kabaris’ in Khadar colony.(ii)

However, in the face of the challenges in separating ‘newer’ migrants from the older settled ‘refugees’ of 1971 and the challenges of handling the multiple dimensions of the undocumented-migrant experience, the process of identifying a correct sample became a herculean task. The migrant/settlers were eager to show us the receipts of their being interviewed by Census officials, as proof of their ‘Indian-ness’ but refused to divulge where their roots actually traced back to. Added to this was the anxiety of ‘security’ or ‘well being’ of the respondents (migrants or otherwise) given a heightened surveillance and policing around these locations. This further became agonizing when under state-induced duress they were all asked to shift away or ‘disappear’ from the city during the actual period of the CWG. Overnight guards and maids disappeared from households only to return once the games were over!

Summing up the field work anxieties
It was found that the traditional security perspectives do not offer much clues to understand the issue such as fragmented citizenship, constructed identities and the political economy of patronage and protection. Nor does it offer a humanitarian lens to understand the ‘human tragedy’ of undocumented migration. Based on the restricted experience of fieldwork with undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in Delhi, the authors feel that researchers can contribute towards a solution oriented discourse on undocumented migrants only by continuously deconstructing the politics behind the ‘voices’ and the ‘silences’, the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’.

*This article is part of a larger paper being written by the authors. It is based on field work conducted in 2010 that was part of a study of migrant remittance flows between India, Bangladesh and Nepal.


(i) This particularly effects people with questionable citizenship credentials or what is referred to as the ‘vernacular citizenship’ See Ajay Gandhi (2008), ‘Vernacular Citizenship and Everyday Governance amongst India’s Urban Poor’, Paper Prepared for Roundtable Discussion “Urban Planet: Collective Identities, Governance, and
Empowerment in Megacities”, sponsored by the Irmgard Coninx Foundation. For social researchers working with migrants populations particularly, these ‘vernacular citizenships’ lead to a wide range of methodological dilemmas.
(ii) For a larger study see Ankit Aggarwal, Ashish Singhmar, Mukul Kulshrestha, Atul K. Mittal (2004), ‘Municipal Solid Waste Recycling and associated markets in Delhi’ IIT Delhi.


Buchenau, J. (2008) ‘Migration, Remittances and Poverty Alleviation in Bangladesh – Report and Proposal’, UNDP Bangladesh.
Census of India 2001 - Report of the Technical Group on Population Projections Constituted by the National Commission on Population, May, (2006)
Chatterjee, P (2004) Politics of the Governed: Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press.
Crush, J. and Ramchandran S. (2009) ‘Xenophobia, International Migration and Human Development’, Human Development Research Paper, UNDP.
Dutta, P. (2004) ‘Push-Pull Factors of Undocumented Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal” A Perception Study’, The Qualitative Report, Volume 9, No 2.
Ramachandran, S. (2005) Indifference, impotence, and intolerance: transnational Bangladeshis in India, Global Migration Perspectives, No. 42
Samaddar, R. (1999) The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Sage Publications Ltd.
Sinha, S.K. (1998) ‘Illegal Migration into Assam’, Report on Illegal Migration into Assam Submitted to the President of India


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