Diaspora: History of and Global Distribution

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Diaspora: History of and Global Distribution

The Indian diaspora, with an estimated strength of 20 million in 2005, spans the globe. Overseas Indians live in different countries, speak different languages, and are engaged in different vocations; despite their differences, they share a common bond: a pride in their cultural heritage and a deep attachment to India.

Undoubtedly, the Indian diaspora is a microcosm of India. Barring a few exceptions, Indian émigrés zealously maintain their regional, ethnic, linguistic, and caste identities. They are known for their resilience, hard work, thrift, and family values. Placing an emphasis on education has enabled them to excel in academic fields and professions like medicine and engineering. Even the descendants of indentured laborers and unskilled workers have relied on education for upward social mobility. Indian communities, particularly Gujaratis and Sindis, have also shown business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. These qualities, combined with proficiency in English, distinguish the Indian diaspora as an influential group worldwide.

Evolution of the Indian Diaspora

Indians have migrated since the dawn of history. There is evidence of Indian migration to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Migrants included traders, Brahman priests, Buddhist monks, and adventurers. Early Indian migration was entirely peaceful and not a product of military conquest. As a result, Indian culture and civilization deeply influenced these regions.

People of Indian origin began to migrate overseas in significant numbers only in the nineteenth century, driven by economic compulsions. In a uniquely diverse pattern, Indians spread initially to Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Fiji. They migrated in small numbers to the West Coast of Canada and the United States, succeeded in the second half of the twentieth century by a steady outflow of some of India's best professionals to the developed countries of the West. In the wake of the oil boom in the 1970s, India's skilled and semiskilled labor moved to West Asia and the Gulf. Because of their open borders and geographical proximity, Nepal and Sri Lanka have millions of persons of Indian origin; this group is not included within the scope of this article.

Colonial period

The abolition of slavery in the British, French, and Dutch colonies in 1834, 1846, and 1873, respectively, created extreme shortages of labor in these plantation economies. A large number of Indians were recruited as indentured labor and were transported to various parts of the empire. The majority of indentured migrants were induced by unethical, illegal contracts. Most Indians were unaware of the provisions of the contracts, and in many cases were not even correctly informed of the location to which they were being transported. A number of workers did not survive the arduous voyage. Mortality rates were high because of the inhuman conditions of the camps and the cruelty of their employers. Indentured labor was, therefore, nothing but a euphemism for slavery. The extraordinary achievements of Indian workers in the face of these heavy odds were described by Vishwamitra Ganga Aashutosh, a Mauritian poet:

No gold did they find
Underneath any stone they
Touched and turned,
Every stone they touched
Into solid gold they turned.

In the first phase, beginning in 1834, the majority of emigrants were recruited in the "hill coolie" district of Chota Nagpur division and the Bankura, Birbhum, and Burdwan districts of the Bengal presidency. Soon the recruiting areas were pushed westward into the Hindi-speaking zones, which remained the leading recruiting area, with most of the indentured labor hired from eastern and central Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, and later from the Madras presidency. They left India by ships from Calcutta and Madras. Subsequently, Indian labor was taken to Sri Lanka and Malaysia under the kangani system (in which a foreman acted as a recruiter) and to Burma (Myanmar) under the maistry system (in which a labor supervisor was responsible for recruitment) system. France sent labor from its colonies in Pondicherry and neighboring areas to Reunion, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. Holland recruited indentured Indians for its colony in Suriname. Portugal also recruited Indians from its possessions in Goa, Daman, and Diu for its colonies in Africa and Macao. In the early phase of this migration, the overwhelming majority of migrants were males. It was only in the later period that special efforts were made to recruit females. The indenture system came to an end in 1917. Traders and other enterprising people who voluntarily followed these migrants at their own expense in search of greener pastures came under the "free passage system."

Indian emigration to what was once the East African Community (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania), as well as to the former Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe), was necessitated in the nineteenth century by the extension of the British colonial empire to Africa. Eastern African Railways was constructed through the sweat and blood of Indians. Four workers died for each mile of the railway line laid. Indians introduced organized commerce in East Africa, replacing the barter system and establishing regular shops; they were known as Dukawala (shopkeepers).

The migration of Indians to North America began in 1903, when Sikh male immigrants from Punjab settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, to work in lumbering, agriculture, and the railroads. Most of these migrants had served in the British army or in the lower echelons of the colonial bureaucracy. As there was a steady increase in the number of Indian workers, the Canadian government passed several laws to limit their entry into Canada. The Komagata Maru (a Japanese ship) tragedy of 1914 brought into sharp focus the fortitude of Indian immigrants and the blatantly discriminatory and racist attitude of the Canadian authorities.

Some of these workers radiated southward to California and neighboring areas, as the United States had not yet passed discriminatory legislation. A small number of students who had come to pursue higher education chose to stay in the United States. As a result of lobbying by Indians, the U.S. Congress in 1946 passed an act that gave Indians the right to naturalization and allowed a token quota of one hundred immigrants. This act enabled Dalip Singh Saund, who had come as a student, to become the first Asian member of the U.S. Congress in 1956.

The rule of the British Raj led to the emergence of an Indian community in Great Britain. Some Parsis and Bengalis settled there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as professionals. The number further increased, as many soldiers of the British Indian army emigrated to Britain. Dadabhai Naoroji was elected as a liberal member to the House of Commons in 1892.

Post-independence period

A steady flow of migration took place after independence that included skilled and unskilled laborers and highly qualified professionals who went to the United Kingdom and other countries of the West to meet the shortages of labor in the wake of World War II. Indian health-care professionals became the backbone of Britain's national health-care service. Post-independence migration to the United States and Canada was primarily education driven. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 and the regulations introduced in Canada in 1967 paved the way for the settlement of a large number of professionals in both countries. The term "brain drain" was coined, primarily in reference to the migration of highly qualified professionals from India to the United States.

Skyrocketing oil prices in 1973 opened new opportunities for India in the Gulf states. The massive requirement of both professionals as well as skilled labor resulted in the emergence of large Indian communities in the oil-producing Arab countries. Indian migrants to the Gulf, however, are unique in that they remain citizens of India, with no prospect of acquiring local citizenship. The presence of Indians in the Gulf countries was an important factor in India's economic development, particularly with regard to foreign exchange reserves.

Regional Profiles of the Indian Diaspora

Africa: Mauritius and Reunion

The French administration brought about three hundred artisans for the development of their newly acquired colony from 1729 to 1731. Later, from 1816 to 1820, the British government of India dumped some prisoners there to serve out their terms of rigorous imprisonment. With more than 700,000 persons of Indian origin, Mauritius is the only country of the diaspora where Indians constitute 70 percent of the total population. This, coupled with their stewardship of the independence movement, has enabled them to achieve political preeminence since the country's independence. Beginning with Sir Shivesagar Ramgulam, all the prime ministers of Mauritius until October 2003 were of Indian origin. Indian migrants maintain a commitment to their linguistic and cultural heritage, even creating a lake called Ganga Talaab, into which water from the Ganges and the other sacred rivers of India was poured.

The Indian community in Reunion was estimated to be over 220,000 by 2005, constituting around 30 percent of its population. After 1920, Indians were granted French citizenship and full civic and political rights, giving them a prominent position in civic and political life. The Indian community there is trying to recapture its cultural heritage, which had become somewhat diluted because of the policies of the colonial rulers and religious conversions in the earlier stages of migration.

South Africa

Indians started arriving in South Africa in 1653, when Dutch merchants sold them as slaves in the Dutch Cape Colony. The pattern of immigration in the nineteenth century was similar to that in other parts of Africa and indeed the world. The indentured labor on plantations was mainly from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra. They were followed by Gujarati traders, who went as "free passengers." The colonial administration enacted discriminatory laws and inflicted petty humiliations to curtail the progress of Indians, who were emerging as competitors to whites in trade and commerce. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's arrival in 1893 heralded the beginning of a long struggle for equality and dignity by the Indian community and led to the establishment of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) in 1894, the forerunner of the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC). Mahatma Gandhi's legacy of struggle against injustice and racial discrimination inspired the next generation of leaders, including Y. M. Dadoo of the TIC and G. M. (Monty) Naicker of the NIC, to launch a prolonged joint struggle, in cooperation with the African National Congress.

Both President Nelson Mandela and President Mbeki appointed a number of Indians to important offices. Despite the fact that about 60 to 70 percent of South Africa's Indian diaspora community live below the poverty line, misperception of the affluence of the Indian community among black South Africans has given rise to some resentment. This resentment, coupled with affirmative action policies, has created a sense of vulnerability among Indians, leading many to support the Democratic Alliance Party.

The Indian community of South Africa is proud of its cultural heritage. There are large numbers of places of worship, and all Indian festivals are celebrated with great enthusiasm. Caste divisions have been substantially diluted, and affluent Indians have maintained a strong tradition of philanthropy that has benefited both blacks and Indians. As South Africa is in a state of transition, the future of the Indian community there will depend on its ability to play a positive role in South African reconstruction.

East Africa

The prosperous Indian community of East Africa plays a dominant role in the economy as well as in the professions, and made a significant contribution to the independence movement. The prosperous lifestyle of affluent Indians generated some resentment among Africans. Idi Amin's brutal treatment and expulsion of Asians deepened the sense of insecurity that had been growing among Indians since the independence of the former colonies, and many migrated to the developed world. Because of their resilience, professional skills, and dominant role in the economy, the community has managed to overcome this crisis, retaining considerable influence in Kenya and Tanzania. The community maintains close interaction with India and is committed to preserving its cultural heritage. Indians in East Africa have undertaken several philanthropic projects benefiting both Africans and Indians.


The Indian community in Israel, numbering about 45,000 in 2005, is in a unique position in that country, as its members have not migrated because of any persecution or discrimination. Even though they are losing their distinct identity, the Indian community has considerable interest in maintaining its cultural links with India.

The United Kingdom

Indians constitute the single largest ethnic minority in the United Kingdom. In addition to about 1 million migrants from India, there are about half a million migrants of Indian origin from Africa and the Caribbean. The Asians and Afro-Caribbean communities in the 1950s and 1960s experienced difficulties in assimilation in the United Kingdom owing to their distinct lifestyles and cultures, thereby introducing a new concept of multiculturalism to the U.K. public agenda. From humble origins in the industrial and retail sectors, Indians have risen to become one of the highest-earning and best-educated groups. They have excelled in all spheres of life. Indians are the backbone of the national health service. In the political arena, five Indians have been elected members of Parliament and eleven have been members of the House of Lords, including two baronesses. There are a large number of Indian entrepreneurs and business people in Britain, including steel magnate Lakshmi N. Mittal, Lord Swaraj Paul, and Lord R. K. Bagri.

In addition to the celebrated Indo-Caribbean Sir V. S. Naipaul, the community has produced a number of well-known authors, including Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitava Ghosh, and many more. The community takes great pride in its religious and cultural heritage. The United Kingdom is dotted with temples, gurudwaras (Sikh temples), and mosques. The Swami Narayan temple, on the outskirts of London, is among the finest examples of Indian architecture. The all-pervasive influence of the Indian community is perhaps best illustrated by its cuisine; chicken tikka is one of the most popular dishes in Britain.

The Indian community has formed a number of social, cultural, and political organizations. Almost all wealthy Indians in the United Kingdom have individual trusts or charities for projects pertaining to health, education, or infrastructure in their home states and villages in India. In times of national crisis or natural calamities in India, these associations and charities raise generous contributions for relief.

Continental Europe

The presence of approximately 200,000 Indians in the Netherlands, 70,000 in Portugal, and 50,000 in France is primarily a product of secondary migration from their former colonies. Small Indian communities in Germany, Italy, and Greece are mostly semi-skilled and unskilled workers, small traders, and restaurant owners. Spain and the Canary Islands have prosperous Sindi communities. The Gujarati community in Antwerp plays a major role in the diamond trade.

The United States

The Indian community in the United States has emerged as the largest and fastest-growing constituent of the diaspora. In addition to 1.7 million people of Indian origin, a large number of secondary and tertiary migrations have taken place from countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Fiji, and other parts of the world. Their achievements and status have earned them the respect of other communities in North America. Nobel Prizes winners Hargovind Khorana (1968, for medicine) and Subramaniam Chandrashekhar (1983, for physics) are outstanding examples of the noteworthy first generation of the Asian diaspora.

Thanks to the knowledge-driven migration from the 1950s, Indians have a significant presence of 37,000 doctors of Indian origin in the United States. Indian academics have done particularly well in science, engineering, and management faculties. Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) graduates are highly respected for their extraordinary achievements. The technology-driven growth of the U.S. economy in the 1990s facilitated the emergence of an entrepreneurial class of Indians in knowledge-based industries, and the synergy between them and their Indian counterparts facilitated the impressive growth of the information technology sector in India. Today India is known as a quality source of technology and service sector workers.

A large number of migrants from East Africa belonged to the Gujarati community, which is known for its business acumen and entrepreneurship. The Patels, a subcommunity of Gujaratis, occupy such a dominant position in the hotel industry that sometimes motels are jokingly called "potels."

Indo-Americans have become more active in the U.S. political arena. Bobby Jindal, a thirty-two-year-old politician, narrowly lost the race for governor of Louisiana. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Congress. The community has effectively mobilized on issues ranging from the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 to Kargil in 1999 (the conflict with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir). They have played a major role in the creation of an India caucus in the U.S. Congress.

Indians in the United States have demonstrated a strong desire to give something back to India. They have contributed generously in times of natural calamities. Influenced by the American tradition of alumni contributions to their alma mater, many Indians, particularly IIT graduates, have established chairs and schools in institutions in India. Some Indo-Americans have also helped establish chairs in Indian studies in universities in the United States. The community has founded a number of nongovernmental organizations engaged in projects in the fields of education, health care, and rural development.

The Indo-American community reflects the diversity of India. Remarkably, their first generation has been able to transmit some of their attachment to culture and traditions to their second generation. Religion plays an important role in the affairs of the Indian community, and they have given priority to the construction of gurudwaras, temples, mosques, and a few churches. More than 87 percent of Indo-Americans have completed high school, while 62 percent have some college education. The rate of divorce in the community is also lower than the national average. The per capita income of the Indo-American community is estimated at U.S.$60,093, compared to the average per capita income of U.S.$38,885. It is hardly surprising that the Indian community is often referred to as the "model minority."


The Indian community in 2005 constituted approximately 3 percent of Canada's total population of 30 million. In addition, there are 200,000 people of Indian origin who have migrated from Africa, the Caribbean, and Fiji. Indo-Canadians are highly regarded in the fields of medicine, academia, management, and engineering. A large number of migrants from the rural areas of Punjab are employed in sawmills and farms and as taxi drivers. Many migrants from Africa are engaged in small and medium businesses. The community is urbanized, and the majority live in metropolitan areas, especially Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. The average annual income of the community is nearly 20 percent higher than the national average.

Indo-Canadians have made their presence felt in mainstream Canadian politics in a relatively short time. Herb Dhaliwal's appointment as federal cabinet minister and Ujjal Dosanjh's election as the first nonwhite premier of British Columbia are important landmarks in Canadian politics. There are six Indo-Canadians among the 301 members of Canada's Parliament. Because of close interaction among first-generation migrants and their families in India, reverberations of developments in Punjab are felt in Canada. Misperception about India's policies led to sections of the Sikh community extending substantial support to the separatist movement in the 1980s.

Indo-Canadians adhere to their religions, maintain their cultural identity, and celebrate their festivals with great enthusiasm. More than a hundred gurudwaras and temples throughout Canada provide a haven to migrants who face problems of adjustment. A number of Indo-Canadians have been awarded the Order of Canada. They have also contributed generously to various causes in both India and Canada.

The Caribbean: Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Central and South America

As of 2005, an Indian diaspora community of 1 million in the Caribbean had settled in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname, constituting over 51 percent, 40 percent, and 35 percent of their total populations, respectively. Indentured laborers attained both economic status and some share of political power after a difficult struggle both during and after colonial rule. Most of the migrants in the Caribbean have zealously retained significant elements of their cultural heritage, having resisted attempts at conversion to Christianity at considerable economic and social cost. They have an emotional bonding with India and regard it as their cultural and spiritual home. However, their social exclusivity and the nature of politics in these countries has set them apart, except in Jamaica, where interracial marriages have taken place. The Indo-Caribbeans do, however, participate in the region's three "Cs": cricket, calypso, and carnival.

At the time of independence, a large number of Surinamese Indians migrated to Holland. Many educated Indians from the Caribbean have also migrated to the United States and Canada in search of better opportunities. The Indo-Caribbean community has produced outstanding leaders in the political arena, including Cheddi Jagan, Bharrat Jagdeo, Basdeo Panday, and Jaggernath Lachmon. The French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique also have around 45,000 and 5,000 Indian migrants, respectively.

Southeast Asia

Indians have migrated to Southeast Asia since the beginning of the common era. The Indian imprint is visible even today in the region's language and literature, religion and philosophy, and art and architecture. The major portion of the migration, however, took place during the British Raj. The British relied heavily on Indians for the workforce in plantations as well as for various services such as clerks, teachers, craftsman, and health care workers. Indian moneylenders and the trading community played a significant role in the economy of the colonies.

The Indian community in Burma suffered heavily as a result of the policy of "Burmanization" (replacing English with Burmese in all teaching establishments and in government administration). This policy led to a large-scale exodus of the professional and educated segments of the Indian community between 1962 and 1964. The present-day community is not prosperous and lags behind in education and the professions, areas they had dominated until independence. A number of Indians in Burma are stateless and have no identity or travel documents. Muslims constitute a large segment of the Indian community.

The Indian community in Malaysia, numbering around 1.6 million, is primarily from South India; approximately 80 percent are Tamils. A large portion of the community are engaged in plantations. However, a small number are involved in services like the police, railways, and education, as well as the legal and medical professions. They have particularly excelled in the fields of medicine and law. A number of these professionals have pursued higher studies in India. Malaysia is, however, one of the few countries where the per capita income of the Indian community is lower than the national average. The Indian community constitutes approximately 9.7 percent of Singapore's population. The current president, S. R. Nathan, is of Indian origin.

In 2005 the Indian community numbered around 85,000 in Thailand, 55,000 in Indonesia, 38,000 in the Philippines, and 7,600 in Brunei. Geographical proximity has facilitated regular interaction with India and has enabled the community to maintain its cultural heritage. Indians throughout Southeast Asia have maintained their religious, cultural, and ethnic identity.

The Asia-Pacific region

The history of migration from India to the Asia Pacific regions dates back to the nineteenth century. A common feature is that the Indian community has mostly adapted itself well to local conditions and is generally regarded as law-abiding, educated, and responsible. Indians are present in significant numbers, with 190,000 in Australia, 55,000 in New Zealand, and 50,000 in Hong Kong by 2005. There has been a shift in the nature of the migrants, from camel handlers and agricultural workers to professionals.

The Fiji archipelago

The history of the Indian community in Fiji (numbering about 340,000 in 2005) has been quite tragic, from the days of indentured labor to the post-independence period, which saw anti-Indian coups. The two coups in Fiji, by Sitweni Rambuka and George Speight, brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of Indians and the reluctance of the natives to share power.

About 75 percent of the indentured Indians were recruited from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and 25 percent from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. They were compelled to work under deplorable conditions on the sugar plantations that had begun to dominate the local economy after the demise of cotton as the preferred cash crop. Gradually, "free immigrants," mainly farmers from Punjab, craftsmen and traders from Gujarat, and some professionals began to arrive. There was also an awakening of political awareness and a desire to remedy their skewed position in the country's social and political life. The British tried to keep the native Fijians and Indo-Fijians apart as far as possible, not even permitting the establishment of racially mixed schools. Race was the prevailing factor of colonialism in Fiji. At the top of the pyramid were the whites; the natives occupied the intermediate position; and the Indians constituted the lowest rung.

The constitution that was created after independence perpetuated the special status of the indigenous Fijians. Indians overcame these hurdles and acquired a share of power during the government of Prime Minister Timochi Bavadra, but this shift in status led to coups in May and November 1987. The cycle was repeated when Mahendra Chaudhry became prime minister with the support of small Fijian parties. These coups led to the emigration of many educated Indians to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

The Indians in Fiji have an uncertain future, which can change only with the intervention of Fijian leadership. Like other indentured laborers in Mauritius and the Caribbean, Indians in Fiji have also zealously preserved their religious traditions and cultural and linguistic heritage. Discriminatory treatment by the whites and subsequently by native Fijians has accentuated this phenomenon.

India and Its Diaspora

India's policy toward its diaspora communities has been governed by the prevailing circumstances. In preindependence years the Indian National Congress took an avid interest in the welfare of overseas Indians, particularly indentured laborers. Congress sent delegations to meet overseas Indians and actively lobbied with the colonial administration for improvement in their conditions. Mahatma Gandhi led agitation for the abolition of indentured labor. India broke diplomatic relations with South Africa in protest of the policy of apartheid.

As a champion of the struggle against colonialism, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accorded high priority to relations with the oppressed nations. He exhorted Indian migrants to completely identify with the country of their adoption, and the Indian diaspora actively participated in freedom struggles in Commonwealth countries. Many were therefore disappointed by India's lack of support when Indian diaspora communities received patently discriminatory treatment in Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, East Africa, and the Caribbean.

The destinies of India and its diaspora are intertwined, and this fact is perhaps best illustrated by the achievements of both since the 1990s. It was during this period that India registered its most impressive economic performance and became a nuclear power. Collaborations between India and Indo-Americans in the information technology sector provided impetus to the development of a mutually beneficial relationship. These developments enhanced the prestige of both India and the diaspora. During the 1990s, Indians became presidents, prime minister, and ministers in a number of countries and attained positions of leadership in academia and the corporate world. Indian writers of English won many laurels; Amartya Sen and V. S. Naipaul became Nobel laureates in 1998 and 2001, respectively. The Ispat Group of Lakshmi Mittal became the second-largest producer of steel in the world.

India's government recently opened a new chapter in its relationship with the diaspora. A plan that included identification cards was created for all segments of the diaspora in 1999. The government also created an Non-Resident Indian/Person of Indian Origin division in the ministry of external affairs. In a major initiative, the government appointed a high-level committee on the Indian diaspora in September 2000. The committee's six-hundred-page report is the most exhaustive study thus far conducted on the Indian diaspora and its relationship with India. The ninth of January was declared the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian Diaspora Day) in recognition of the achievements of the diaspora (Mahatma Gandhi had returned to India on 9 January 1915 after his twenty-one years in South Africa). New Delhi also considered the demand for dual citizenship by Indian migrants in a number of countries, and a bill was introduced in the Parliament in March 2003.

Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee inaugurated the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 9 January 2003. Approximately two thousand diaspora Indians from sixty-two countries attended the event, witnessing unprecedented enthusiasm in India for fostering a relationship with its diaspora communities. The event increased the perception of a global Indian family and was a major step in the development of India's relationship with all the constituents of its diaspora.

After the elections of 2004, the new coalition government, led by the Congress Party, created a ministry for Overseas Indians Affairs. The third Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was celebrated in Mumbai, and the policy for dual citizenship was further liberalized. The diaspora is poised to play an important role in the realization of India's aspirations worldwide.

Jagdish Sharma

See alsoScientists of Indian Origin and Their Contributions ; United States, Relations with


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