Jagdeo Sahni has travelled a long way from his home in Motihari, Bihar. Soon after he shifted to Punjab, his son Pradeep was born in a migrant ghetto on the outskirts of a Hoshiarpur village. Sahni, with 30-odd years spent back home, looks every bit the migrant Bihari he is. But Pradeep, with his hair tied up in a bun on the top of his head, could pass off as Pradeep Singh — a local Sikh lad. He is the Gen Next of migrants in Punjab.
If his father’s plans succeed, Pradeep will go to school and later college. He will grow up to say his parents were from Motihari but that was a long time ago. And, that he spoke Bhojpuri but that too was a long time ago. It will seem longer because Sahni wants it to. He will teach his son Punjabi and make him a Sikh, he says.
To the whys and whens hurled at him, Sahni has only uneasy smiles for answers at first. The one-sided conversation is interrupted by a labourer’s shouts in the neighbouring orchard. Sardarji — the landlord — has summoned Sahni to work in his orchard after he is finished with this one. Sahni goes over to haggle. The deal is sealed at Rs. 80 for a day’s work. When he returns, he says beamingly, “In Motihari, I won’t get enough wages and Pradeep will get no school.”
A blaring loudspeaker atop the jeep going past makes a song and dance about the festival of democracy Punjab is witnessing. Sahni is not interested. He will cast his vote as Sardarji thinks he should. Says Dr. Pramod Kumar, director, Institute of Communication and Development, Chandigarh, “Migrants here are voters but not stakeholders yet. The rural labourers usually go the way the landlord does and the urban worker goes with his employer.”
Migration is a part of the solution that the state has devised for its missing lakhs — the ones who migrated to foreign lands, never to return. Migrants come largely from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. UNDP’s Punjab Human Development Report says the state had 21.65 lakh migrants in the late 1990s. The number is now estimated to have crossed 25 lakh.
A little over a hundred kilometres away, in the Ghyaspura area of Ludhiana, another jeep with another loudspeaker is part of a campaign for Jan Morcha candidate from the Ludhiana Rural seat, Shambhu Singh, a migrant. On January 21, V.P. Singh and Raj Babbar campaigned for him. Their rally — though it was thinly attended — managed to attract fringe Akalis like former Punjab speaker Ravi Inder Singh, who has formed his own Akali Dal, and former MP Amrik Singh Aliwal who left Parkash Singh Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) a day ago to join Akali Dal (Ravi Inder). V.P. Singh said migrants “have done a lot for Punjab’s development. It is time they got their due.”
Though the 2001 census put the number of migrants in Ludhiana at over five lakh, unofficial estimates indicate that the number has crossed seven lakh. Of these, over two lakh are registered voters. No wonder parties that dominate the Hindi heartland have fielded candidates. The Samajwadi Janata Party, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Jan Morcha are all contesting. The Janata Dal (United) has extended support to the SAD-BJP combine in the state. Sharad Yadav came to Ludhiana and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar came to migrant-dominated Jalandhar.
In the new Sunernagar mohalla in the Dakha constituency, three neighbours sit playing cards. Sanjay Sinha is from Doomka, Raminder Sahu from Patna and Inderjit Sharma from Kapurthala. Each owns a 50-square-yard brick and concrete house. “We belong to different pasts but our present is linked,” says Sharma. The three are fast friends. “We will vote for the Congress or the SAD after assessing what they can do for this area,” says Sahu. Sinha says he is aware of the migrant candidate in the fray but he won’t waste his vote on a candidate who can’t win. “I live here and I want the best for this neighbourhood,” he says.
“Our survey found that migrants are a considerable vote bank in the 51 constituencies along the Grand Trunk Road, where most migrant settlements exist,” says Amritbir Singh Gulati, chairman, Parliamentary Board JD(U), Punjab. “A little less than 15 per cent of all voters in Punjab are migrants — around 12 lakh votes,” he adds. The survey also reveals that around four per cent migrants have adorned long hair and sport beards. “Though less than five per cent have become baptised Sikhs, the number of those who want to be like the Sikhs is much larger.”
Clearly, the only thing that will stand between the Hindi heartland parties and their ride to power in Punjab will be the growing community of Bhaiya Sikhs —migrants who want to look, live and vote like the Sikhs.