The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture. Its presence around the world is signified by Indian writers of renown settled in the Caribbean, Britain, the United States, South Africa, east Africa, and Fiji; the widespread availability of at least some generic, or allegedly ‘Mughlai’, form of Indian cuisine; the emergence of hybrid forms of music –– among them, desi hip-hop and chutney; the proliferation of software engineers and doctors of Indian descent; a nearly ubiquitous fascination for Bollywood; the growing engagement of diasporic Indians with the political cultures of their adopted lands; and much else.
If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora similarly does not exist in the singular. One can speak of the diasporas of the north and the south, though, in India, there is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement, migration, and overseas settlement that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean. Newspaper reports from the last few days mention the emotional visit of the Prime Minister of Mauritius to the village in Bihar from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the former British empire. More than a decade ago, something similar was reported about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the Prime Minister of Trinidad, to his ancestral village.
In India’s metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad. When the designation NRI first came about around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud. Indeed, it would no exaggeration to suggest that for many people, ‘NRI’ meant only Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut. It is said that more than 25% of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted with evident glee to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers, and especially doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place, considering that Indians are just marginally less than 1% of the American population, in the professions. This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself. Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversations at middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.
However, even in the US the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than is commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students, and later Ghadrites who made their way to the US in the late 1890s and in the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the United States was prohibited by law in 1924. Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US following the immigration reforms of 1965: notwithstanding the common impression that they are largely affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin Donuts franchises around the country, and of course have a huge hand in the motel business. In California’s Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country’s greatest agricultural hubs, 14% of the Indians according to a 2005 report lived below the poverty level and 35% had not even earned a high school diploma.
The origins of the other Indian diaspora lie elsewhere, in the political economy of colonialism that sent indentured laborers, mainly from the Gangetic heartland and the Tamil country, to forge the white man’s empire of sugar, rubber, and cash crops. As one prominent scholar opined, indentured labor was simply a new form of slavery. Nationalist opinion, and the efforts of English sympathizers such as C. F. Andrews, aided in shutting down the system of indenture in 1917, but not before 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage. They lived in appalling conditions, in the “lines” formerly inhabited by the slaves. These Indians humanized the landscape, tilled the soil, and put the food on tables: they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our diaspora.
At the present moment, in the midst of the ‘NRI season’ and the celebration of the recently concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, it is well to reflect on the future of the Indian diaspora. Among the affluent Indians in Britain, Canada, and especially the United States, there is some desire to influence the course of events in India itself. On the other hand, as the massive exodus of Indo-Fijians since the coups of 1987 and 2000 suggests, ‘mother India’ is frankly unable to do very much to enhance the rights of its dispersed children besides engaging in grand rhetorical exercises in impotent institutions such as the Commonwealth.
India’s policymakers are mainly interested in how the diaspora can feed the engine of growth in India. But we need a less impoverished and more civilizational view that would make us aware not merely of the accumulated narratives of our Silicon Valley ‘miracles’ and the triumphant success, year after year, of Indian American children at the National Spelling Bee, but also of the histories of those Indians who, braving conditions of extreme adversity, nurtured new forms of music, literature, religious worship, and even conviviality. It is a remarkable fact that, from within the depths of Ramacaritmanas country in Fiji, we have had the first novel ever written in Bhojpuri. Our Indian diaspora, complex and variegated, needs a hefty Purana.
First published in a slightly abridged version as “Diasporas of India: Shiny NRI success stories obscure older migrations from our colonial past”, Indian Express(18 January 2013), p. 12.
Slightly amended Hindi version published as “Bharatiya Nagarikon ka Purana”, Prabhat Khabar (22 January 2013), p. 8.