East Indian Diaspora
East Indian Diaspora
Indian indentured migration was a distinctively mid-nineteenth-century British labor-reallocation policy. It was predicated on and institutionalized a racial division of labor across the globe. While men and women from throughout British India were recruited during the scheme’s seven decades of operation (1836–1917), the majority were came from what are now the states of Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. This policy played a significant, if under-appreciated, role in the emergence and crystallization of nationalist, nativist, and anticolonial discourses and movements, not only in India from the turn of the twentieth century on, but also in the other colonies to which men and women from the Indian subcontinent (whether under indentures or not) migrated and settled. The discursive contexts in which government-supervised indentured migration emerged was criticized, regulated, defended, and finally abolished also frame subsequent migration streams. Further, they continue to haunt the relations among the descendents of these various migrants, the Indian government, and those proliferating and polarizing transnational cultural and political economies characteristic of the early twenty-first century.
Migration around, to, through, and from the Indian subcontinent has been a characteristic and defining feature of the region’s recorded pasts. It was augmented and expanded in the colonial period by the migration and settlement of laborers, soldiers, and bureaucrats from British India to British enterprises in Burma, the Malay peninsula, and Ceylon. However, the streams currently referred to as the “Indian diaspora” are commonly understood as those that began with the mid-nineteenth-century policy of assisted indentured labor migration; that proliferated in the migrations of traders and merchants, missionaries, and teachers to serve communities of settled indentured migrants (in Uganda, for example); and that expanded in separate, but not unrelated, individual and voluntary emigrations to north America, Australia and New Zealand, and Britain and Europe. One such migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that of Punjabi men to the west coast of Canada and the United States (peaking from the 1890s through World War I [1914–1918]). Some of these migrants married and started families and farms with Mexican women, who were themselves participants in yet another labor emigration stream.
Another, more extended and extensively studied stream of the Indian diaspora comprises the skilled and unskilled workers and students that since the 1960s have migrated to jobs and schools in primarily Anglophone countries in the “Global North.” A further subset of the diaspora includes relocations (voluntary or under duress) of earlier migrants’ descendents. These individuals have moved from newly independent nations and former British colonies like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda (from which they were expelled in 1972), Fiji, or the Caribbean to the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Another substantial overseas migration stream from India during the last thirty years has been that of both skilled and unskilled wage workers on short-term contracts to the oil-rich Gulf States.
Insofar as they do not result in permanent settlement or communities, the short-term migration of skilled and unskilled workers are not considered part of the Indian diaspora, either in the vocabulary of the Indian government (wherein they are designated “Non-Resident Indians,” or NRIs), or in the scholarly and popular literature on diaspora—their financial contributions to families in India notwithstanding. To distinguish these and other temporary migrants from those permanently settled overseas (sometimes for a generation or more), the government of India has coined the term “Persons of Indian Origin,” or “PIOs.”
Indentured migration from British India was a strategy (variously successful) to preserve the individual, industrial, and imperial wealth and power flowing from the highly protectionist plantation mode of sugar production in the British West Indies. While never uncontested by critics in the West Indies, Britain, or India, Indian indentured migration and the sugar plantation economy it sustained were deemed sufficiently successful to be introduced to Fiji in 1879. Indeed, in the decades before its abolition by the Indian government in 1917, indentured migration was extended to new industrial enterprises, most notably the construction and operation of railroads in the British colonies in eastern and southern Africa, where migrant and sojourning merchant communities with kinship and business ties in western India had flourished for several centuries.
Almost from its inception, the system of indentured migration was cast by detractors in India, in the labor-importing colonies and in metropolitan Britain as a “new system of slavery” (as Colonial Secretary Russell put it in a communication to Governor Henry Light on February 15, 1840). It was distinguished only nominally from the hereditary servitude it replaced. Charges of deception and coercion in recruitment in India, and of highly exploitative conditions at colonial work sites generated innumerable exposés in the antislavery press, scores of government inquiries and investigations, and ongoing efforts to devise protocols to govern the recruitment, transportation, employment, living conditions, and repatriation (or permanent residence) of indentured workers and their descendents.
Of particular concern to critics and apologists alike was the status of women among the indentured migrants, of whom a stipulated proportion (40%) was mandated by the government of India in each importing colony’s annual recruitment and allotment, despite the varied objections of employers, recruiters, and critics throughout the empire. Contemporaries and subsequent generations of observers have generally agreed that, whether indentured migration unconscionably exploited or positively benefited those who migrated under its aegis, the system helped to further institutionalize and reify categories of race, nation and division of labor, not only in broad strokes across the British Empire (and, indeed, the globe, since French and Dutch colonies also imported Indian indentured labor), but also among the various and varied populations of individual importing colonies.
Indentured migrants from British India, together with their descendents, were identified and categorized as “Indian.” Thus, men and women who may have been accustomed to identifying themselves and others according to locally significant affiliations—such as clan, lineage, village, religious practice, or language—found themselves cast as “Indian” en route to plantations (and other work sites) in the Caribbean, Africa, or the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where they would be distinguished from others encountered and cast as “African,” “Fijian,” “European,” “Chinese.” In the Caribbean colonies, for example, Indian migrants and their descendents were cast as docile, industrious, and thrifty wage laborers, in stark contrast to emancipated creole populations and their descendents, whose alleged inability or refusal to engage in plantation labor for wages provoked employers’ turn to India. That this strategy was subsidized by the colonial and imperial states did not go unnoticed by workers and critics in the sugar colonies, India, or the metropole, who charged, variously, that imported Indian labor was depressing plantation wages and forcing African-creole people out of that sector, or that it amounted to a deliberate policy of racial-national “divide and rule” on the part of employers and the state alike.
In the Fiji islands, which were brought under British protection in 1874, the bureaucratized system of Indian indentured labor recruitment and administration enabled the British government to assure Fijian chiefs that native Fijians’ exclusive rights, privileges, and identity as owners and custodians of the land would not be compromised by the introduction of plantation agriculture. The land to be brought under cultivation would be leased (and never sold) to sugar companies, and the labor would be imported (the skilled from Britain, and the unskilled— nearly 61,000 men and women between 1879 and 1917—from India).
In the Caribbean, Fiji, and indeed everywhere Indian indentured migration proceeded, large and complex bodies of legislation regulating indentured workers and Indian migrants’ personal mobility (pass laws), personal relations (stipulations recognizing as legal only those marriages performed before a magistrate or a Christian clergyman) and community organizations proliferated, further institutionalizing and normalizing indentured migrants and their communities, and separating them from others.
In addition, from the 1880s on, missionaries representing various reformist strains of Hindu and Muslim practice in India began to circulate and proselytize among the growing Indian indentured and immigrant communities in Fiji, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean colonies, facilitating the spread of news of India to dispersed migrants, and news of the migrants to India. Together with the emergence of a specifically nationalist critique of British rule in India, this further contributed to the ongoing production and consolidation of an “Indian” identity among indentured migrants and their growing communities.
However, particularities and differences among indentured migrants (religious and linguistic ones, for example, based on where, when and how they were recruited) did not disappear en route to the importing colonies, where Hindu and Muslim immigrants pursued their separate faiths and practices in their articulated but distinctive communities. In addition, caste—and assumptions about the significance of caste and religion (as well as region of birth) to recruits’ value as plantation laborers—exercised the imagination of critics, supporters, and administrators of the system, whose observations and assessments comprise the definitive official archive on Indian indentured migration. Some employers instructed their recruitment agents in India to avoid or pursue recruits of particular castes. In 1919, an observer writing in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana observed that “Excepting ex-policemen, ex-soldiers, Brahmins, Chatris, Rajputs, Barbers, Dhobis, Nats, Banias, Fakirs, Punjabis, and coolies of any of the non-agricultural castes, all other castes are recruited and have been sent to the Colonies” (Rodway, 1919).
The data generated in the recruitment process (and preserved in the records of Indian government agencies mandated to regulate indentured emigration, which was restricted to the ports of Calcutta and Madras) have similarly attracted considerable scholarly and popular attention. These data, about which even some contemporaries were skeptical, along with data from importing colonies, indicate that the majority of indentured emigrants who left from Madras (the major port for migration to colonial Ceylon, Fiji, Malaya, Natal and Burma) were from the Tamil-speaking, eastern districts of the Presidency, while the majority of emigrants embarking from Calcutta were from what are now Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and eastern Bengal (with some recruits from Punjab and farther east also recruited and embarked from Calcutta). The most exhaustive and critical study of these data was conducted by Sir George Grierson in 1883. His “Report on Colonial Emigration from the Bengal Presidency” suggests strongly that throughout the Bengal Presidency there was considerable awareness of what indentured migration would entail. He noted, “About caste, the people have invented a curious theory regarding ship-board life, which shows the adaptability of native customs,” in which they likened the pollutions (dietary and other) encountered on the passage from India to those encountered en route to the temple of Jagannath, a popular destination for Hindu pilgrims. He was told that “a man can eat anything on board-ship. A ship is like the temple of Jagannath, where there are not caste restrictions.”
The legal, social, and political discriminations faced by indentured migrants in other British colonies, along with the real and perceived extension of handicaps and prejudice to non-indentured overseas Indian communities, provoked intense and sustained outrage and political organization both in these colonies and in India. In South Africa, for example, members of Indian merchant communities who had settled in Natal hired Mohandas K. Gandhi to represent them in their ongoing disputes with the government between 1893 and 1914. Gandhi continued to play a role here—working on the Colour Bar and Class Areas Reservation bills of 1925 and 1926, for example—long after his return to India, despite lukewarm support from Indian nationalists focused on the struggle for self-determination at home. Those Indians in the subcontinent denied access to employment in the highest echelons of the Indian civil service and army because they were not European found it galling that, through indentured migration, “Indian” came to be associated throughout the world with unskilled and low-wage labor.
In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, an Indian nationalist leader and member of the Legislative Council (for Bombay), proposed legislation abolishing indentured emigration from India. He argued, “Wherever the system exists, there the Indians are only known as coolies, no matter what their position might be.… [T]here are disabilities enough in all conscience attaching to our position in this country, … why must this additional brand be put upon our brow before the rest of the civilised world?” (Government of India, Legislative Proceedings, March 4, 1912). The association was an important factor in the strategies and rhetoric leading to abolition of the migration scheme.
The equation of Indians with cheap labor continued to frame intra-imperial resistance to extending to India the self-rule and sovereignty accorded all the white settler colonies, even after abolition of indentureship in 1917. At the 1923 Imperial Conference held in London, for example, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada argued that for his government “the problem is not a racial one; it is purely … economic.” He attributed Indians’ limited citizenship rights to the electoral clout of organized labor, which was fearful of Indians’ perceived willingness to work for wages lower than those acceptable to European-descended Canadians, and to the politics of constitutional federalism. Referring to the legal disabilities faced by Indians in South Africa, Prime Minister Jan Smuts explained that they were merely means toward ensuring that the culture and values brought to southern Africa by European settlers in the nineteenth century continue to flourish in his country. In his comments at the Imperial Conference, he explained that white South Africans “are not there to foster Indian civilisation, they are there to foster Western civilization” (Smuts, 1988).
The implications of indentured migration’s role in the racialization or nationalization of labor through the empire extended through anticolonial struggles, independence, and beyond. In Trinidad, for example, a racialized division of labor and residential segregation (with Indian-Trinidadians predominating in rural areas and agricultural occupations, and African-Trinidadians in urban and manufacturing ones) led to political divisions between the two most numerous population groups that persisted well past independence in 1962. In British Guiana in 1957, divisions in the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) between African and Indo-Guyanese members and interests (each constituting nearly 40% of the population) led Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham to establish the predominantly African Guyanese People’s National Party (PNC). This left the PPP, led by Cheddi Jagan, primarily Indo-Guyanese. Exacerbated by Anglo-American antipathy toward Jagan’s unapologetically socialist sympathies, the racially charged political divisions were accompanied by ongoing civil unrest and violence that well lasted past independence in 1966, when a government headed by Burnham and his party took office. Indeed, these divisions were still in play after Jagan was elected president in 1992.
The pattern is evident in Fiji, as well, where a military coup in 1987, led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (the army is almost exclusively ethnic Fijian), produced a new constitution (in 1992) that banned Indo-Fijians from holding the post of prime minister and ensured that more than half of all Parliamentary seats were held by native Fijians. These provisions were revised in 1997, however, and Mahendra Chaudhry of the Fiji Labour Party was swept into office as the first Indo-Fijian prime minister in 1999. But a second coup, under the leadership of ethnic Fijian George Speight, toppled the newly-elected government in May 2000. Speight explained that for ethnic Fijians like himself, “it’s not so much a hate of the Indians but a fear of our host culture and everything unique about ourselves being eroded to the extent that it could be lost” (Mercer, 2000).
The 2000 coup precipitated a wave of anti-Indian violence and accelerated Indo-Fijian emigration to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, where (together with emigrants and refugees from Trinidad, Guyana, Tanzania, Uganda, the nations of South Asia, and elsewhere) they contribute to growing and increasingly heterogeneous Indian, Caribbean, African, and other minority communities. As “Paki-bashing” in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, the “dot-busting” (attacks on women with bindis on their foreheads) in the United States in the 1990s, and the targeted violence following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 all testify, these migrants—along with those directly from the subcontinent—often encounter hostility from already-settled citizenries and populations, whether native-born or immigrant.
The impact of these multiple and varied migrations is evident in every aspect of the economies, politics, and social and cultural histories and productions of the nations in which migrants from India have settled, as well as in the subcontinent itself. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council, founded in 1964) has successfully tapped resources in the diaspora (through such media as the VHP of America) for funds and political lobbying to advance the aim of establishing India as a Hindu state. The VHP is closely linked historically and organizationally to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteers’ Union), founded in 1925, and to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party), formed in 1980. This alliance led a coalition government (the National Democratic Alliance) from 1998 to 2004. The VHP has also been associated with the 1992 destruction of a sixteenth-century Muslim mosque in Ayodhya (allegedly built on the site of the birthplace of Rama, an important aspect of the Hindu god Vishnu), and with the spiral of anti-Muslim violence and political unrest this act precipitated, both at that time and in Gujarat in 2002.
On the cultural front, the post-independence Indian film industry, based in Bombay, has emerged as an important and dynamic common ground for Indians both in India and abroad. The popular cultures projected through cinema (and ancillary industries like television, music, and dance) have been increasingly inflected by and attentive to diasporic viewers. Judging from the sheer volume of sites devoted to a vast array of aspects of South Asian, Indian, and diasporic identities and interests, the Internet has proved a generative space for forging community and delineating differences among those with ancestral and affective ties to India.
In the United States, passage of the 1965 Immigration Act facilitated the immigration from South Asia of professional and technical workers (as well as students seeking professional and advanced postgraduate degrees). Many of these individuals became naturalized citizens of the United States, where they and their children have been cast as “model minorities” who demonstrate the promise of American citizenship. Since the mid-1970s, patterns have shifted again, with family reunification rather than employer preference accounting for a growing proportion of immigrants from South Asian countries. This has also led to a decline in the proportion of highly skilled and professional and technical workers among those emigrating.
In India, in the meantime, the Citizenship Act of 1955 conclusively precluded the possibility that emigrants settled overseas, whether born in India themselves or born overseas to Indian citizens, could be citizens both of their countries of domicile and of India. Instead, the act reserved to the Indian government the right to extend Indian citizenship to citizens of Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland on “a basis of reciprocity” and agreement between itself and the governments in question. However, in 2004, after decades of lobbying, some PIOs who may have forfeited Indian citizenship when they became naturalized citizens (or second-generation PIOs, born overseas) were permitted to pursue a partial restitution of Indian citizenship. While it withholds the right to vote, the amendment permitting “dual citizenship” promulgated in 2004 substantially facilitates financial investments and property ownership in India by eligible PIOs, in part through the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), which was formed expressly to administer to the PIO population. While the government of India estimates that emigrants from “territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India” numbers over 20 million people, only emigrants to sixteen countries—none of which was involved in Indian indentured migration—are eligible for dual citizenship.
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