Sikhs from India on the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru in Vancouver, Canada.
Sikhs from India on the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru in Vancouver, Canada.

The ironies of history

What remains of the term 'diaspora' if we remove from it the notions of home, origin and loss?

(This article from our web-exclusive package is a reply to Parvathi Raman's essay on finding the 'authentic' diaspora, and was first published in Himal Southasian, October 2003. See the rest of the web-exclusive package 'Diaspora: Southasia abroad'.)

In her interesting article 'In search of the 'authentic' diasporic subject' (Himal, September 2003), Parvathi Raman discusses the meanings of the term 'diaspora'. She joins issue with what she interprets as my "questioning of the legitimacy of diasporic identities" in the case of South African Indians in my essay 'Diasporic dispositions' (Himal, December 2002). There is much to both agree and disagree with in her article and I welcome a productive and historically informed debate on which analytical and political meanings the much used, and abused, category 'diaspora' has today.

Let me start by assuring Raman that my intention in the admittedly polemical essay under discussion was never to question the "legitimacy" of diasporic identities as genuinely held political-cultural identities, and even less to assume the existence of any "authentic diasporic subject" modelled on the Jewish experience, as Raman claims. My intention was to demonstrate the profound irony that resides in the fact that those of Indian origin in South Africa today ­– who most eagerly embrace a diasporic identity organised around a central theme of loss, of displacement (not migration) from the motherland, and of overcoming hardships in their new land of residence – are those who suffered the least.

This essay is part of Himal's Raman-Hansen debate on the notion of 'diaspora' from 2000-2003.

Keep checking our web-exclusive package for more.

Imagined woes
Although the Gujarati passenger Indians suffered under the racist governance in Durban and elsewhere, their predicament bears no resemblance to the plight of the indentured labourers from 1860 onwards. The nature of the predominantly Gujarati migration to various parts of Africa and elsewhere from the 19th century onwards can best be described as driven by transnational familial economic strategies of trade. Gujaratis in the region, including South Africa, have maintained close links with Gujarat through religious institutions, ties, marriages, regular visits, and so on.

There is no doubt that India, and more specifically Gujarat, was, and remains, absolutely vital to the identities of these relatively affluent groups. In fact, that significance is much more than just as a resting place of the imagination but as the very origin of the cultural practices, language and moral habitus of these communities. This pattern of sustained contact and interdependence was true of the period Raman deals with, as well as during the apartheid era and after.

The same environment of transnational Gujaratis and some north Indian migrants also provided, from an early point in time, an alert and interested audience for news of India (still reported on one page in the old Durban-based weekly The Leader). They embraced the anti-colonial ideology and the new 'Indianness' which arose in the twentieth century, articulated first and foremost by a Gujarati Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi. The family histories of Gujaratis I know in South Africa have not been related to me as stories of loss and displacement, but as stories of daring and adventure, sometimes under adverse circumstances, crowned by success and affluence because of thrift and hard work.

Even more interestingly, the framing of such stories in terms of 'diaspora' is a very recent phenomenon, conditioned by the fact that the foundational and hegemonic narrative of post-apartheid South Africa is that of a suffering people. The history of Indians has, accordingly, been framed as a homogenous story of loss, displacement and suffering, ie, a standardised version of the history of indentured labourers. There is a further irony in the fact that this version of the South African Indian history, which has been elaborated and painstakingly documented by generations of progressive and non-racial intellectuals, today is eagerly embraced and appropriated by the most conservative and communal, and even racist, forces in the 'Indian' community in South Africa.

The second intention of my essay was to show how problematic the encounter with the actually existing India is for many South African Indians who embark on roots tourism with only vague ideas of the Subcontinent. Raman is absolutely correct in pointing out that this is a broader and more general problem of what I would call transnational populations. It is also true, as Raman suggests, that a large part of the elite and middle class in India and other countries in the Subcontinent have a very problematic relationship with the realities of their own countries.

There is no doubt that a growing resentment against the poor, and the 'backward Muslims', have been central motives in the widespread adoption by the middle class of a hard-headed Hindu nationalist rhetoric in India. However, my intention was to question the existence of any "authentic diasporic subject". The people described in my essay (and many other similar accounts) are all descendants of indentured labourers who left the Subcontinent lured by the prospect of a new life across the kala pani.

For these people, success in life in South Africa has been accompanied by a desire to learn about their own origins. I am not questioning the legitimacy of this desire. On the contrary, the search for some kind of authenticity – to be found in a sense of history, in religion, in music or other practices – is a crucial force in human life and something that needs to be understood and appreciated by anyone dealing with questions of identity. What I tried to show is that for these South African Indians, an 'India' of the imagination is a more effective touchstone of authenticity than the physical realities of the Republic of India of the 1990s.

I agree with Raman that instead of assuming "diasporic sentiments" to be a natural or unproblematic constant, we need to investigate what the 'homeland' or 'Indianness' has meant at various junctures. As historians or anthropologists, our job is to bring to light the complexities and paradoxes at the heart of such narratives and identities. But we also need to be aware of the necessary distinction between a language of politics (based on moral and political judgement) and a language of analysis (based on presentation of evidence, descriptions and arguments that can lend themselves to different interpretations). These two languages can never be separated and 'objectivity' is impossible except as an always incomplete aspiration.

This notwithstanding, widely circulating terms like 'diaspora', 'identity' or 'culture' mean different things in the mouth of a political figure than in that of a social scientist. The political activist is trying to talk something into existence (as Gandhi did with 'Indianness', which would have had no meaning 50 years earlier), while the analyst is trying to map and describe the genealogy and meanings of a certain term and its uses. Politicians and cultural entrepreneurs are extremely attentive to the meanings and connotations of terms they use, and social scientists should be equally attentive to the precision of the terms they employ.

I have strong doubts about the usefulness of 'diaspora' as a noun, as a descriptive category that says something meaningful about a group of people and their history. This is not merely because the concept has been used both by the left and the right, as Raman points out, but because it implies 'diaspora' to be a 'total identity', a condition that informs and structures many facets of life. This is plainly wrong. Diaspora should be used as an adjective (diasporic) or as a verb (diasporisation) to describe an aspiration, a fleeting, at times important, form of imagination that may, or may not, succeed in providing an effective framework of interpretation of a given social situation.

Raman's example of Indianness of the early decades of the 20th century was exactly such a yearning and aspiration that gave a sense of dignity and certainty to its adherents and yet, as a lived reality, was blocked and disturbed by countless divisions of class, religion, language, etc. So, we can use the adjective 'diasporic' to describe such sentiments and identities that establish imaginary and practical links with a (lost) homeland, or point of origin. But to use the term diaspora to meaningfully describe entire groups of people is a cul de sac.

I do not believe in an objectivist 'check-list sociology', but one needs to ask what remains of the term diaspora if we remove notions of home/origin, and if we remove the central trope of loss? We are left with nothing, or a misnomer. Even the most anti-essentialist elaborations of diaspora or hybridity could not escape the idea of displacement, or of the mixing of cultures – thus implicitly assuming a place-bound and holistic notion of culture that most anthropologists have abandoned quite some time ago.

Instead of scrapping the concept altogether, I suggest that we recognise that there are 'diasporic' sentiments, and attempts at 'diasporisations' that, in our case, aim at turning various groups of 'brown folks' into an Indian diaspora. It happened in the beginning of the 20th century with the creation of 'India' as a political project, and it happens now in the attempt to create a global Hindu culture.

Indianness sans indianness
Raman's depiction of the importance of India as a "resting place for the imagination", and the depiction of Indian community solidarity needs some qualification, however. The efforts to make 'Indianness' a common denominator in South Africa had a long and difficult gestation. Gandhi was only gradually persuaded to take up the plight of the indentured 'coolies', and deep-seated caste and community prejudices meant that many Gujaratis were reluctant to see 'coolies' as part of their concern.

There were long-standing efforts in the 1890s on the part of Gujarati merchants to be reclassified as 'Arabs' to escape the stigma of being an 'Asiatic'. At that time, 'India' was an idea, not a reality and the bonding of a Tamil untouchable with a Gujarati merchant was less than self-evident. There is little doubt that the spurious racial classification and governance of everybody from the Subcontinent as 'Asiatics' was fundamental to the emergence of 'Indianness' in South Africa.

Throughout, Gandhi and subsequent Indian leaders stressed the status of Indians as 'imperial subjects' to be granted certain rights and protections as opposed to the Africans or 'natives' whose capacity for self-rule Gandhi never deliberated on or assumed. The racial basis of 'Indianness' was also reflected in later political formations that were all monoracial (except the Communist Party after the 1940s). Indians were organised in the Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress, while Africans were organised in the ANC and other formations.

In spite of the formal cooperation between these outfits in the 1940s and after, their mono-racial character did not change, even up to the 1980s. The racial basis for Indian solidarity in South Africa was both imposed by the sheer force of its government, and derived from deep-seated caste ideologies that, like racial ideology, are based on ideas of immutable essences transferred through blood and lineage. This does not alter the fact that 'Indianness' became a very effective basis for political and communal organisation (under leaders like Yusuf Dadoo and others) that was emancipatory and pioneering in the resistance against white dominance in the country. However, this legacy of community solidarity has also, as Raman points out herself, become something of a liability in the new South Africa.

India was, however, not merely a resting place of the imagination among politically alert South African Indians in the first half of the 20th century. The relationship between the two colonial territories also displays interesting contradictions within the colonial project itself. During the protracted attempts to repatriate and relocate Indians in Durban in the 1920s, the Congress movement in South Africa sent a deputation to India to mobilise political support for the cause of the Indians in South Africa. Mass meetings were held in various parts of India to protest against the move and the Viceroy of India, Lord Reading, submitted an official protest against the legislation.

Interestingly, the Government of India acted as an advocate of Indian interests in South Africa and pressed for a roundtable conference where the issue could be settled and negotiated between the two governments within the Commonwealth. The conference took place in late 1926 in Cape Town. The Indian delegation consisted of six civil servants, three Indian and three British, and was led by Sir Mahomed Habibullah. The South African delegation was all-white. After protracted negotiations, the so-called Cape Town Agreement was signed in 1927. It stipulated a new voluntary repatriation scheme that built certain financial incentives (free tickets, a fixed sum per adult and child, etc) into the repatriation procedure.

The more remarkable part of the agreement was that a review of Indian education was to be undertaken, with assistance of experts in education from India; that the South African government promised to provide better housing and living conditions for Indians; that Indians should receive "equal pay for equal work"; and that no unreasonable obstacles should be put in the way of Indian business initiatives. It was also agreed that a permanent Agent General of the Government of India should be posted in South Africa to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

The repatriation scheme did have some effect in the first five years after its implementation, but the worldwide economic crisis slowed down the pace. As stories of untold hardship among repatriates in India filtered back into South Africa, the numbers applying for repatriation fell dramatically in the early 1930s.

In 1946, the South African government passed the highly controversial Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act – an explicitly discriminatory piece of legislation. The Government of India, still under British administration, protested strongly and withdrew its High Commissioner in South Africa. An Indian delegation from South Africa met Gandhi in Poona in March 1946, and Gandhi assured the delegation of his unconditional support and that the matter would be taken up in international forums, and in the negotiations with the British Government (Bombay Chronicle, 4 March, 1946). On behalf of the Government of India, the issue was put before the newly formed United Nations General Assembly as a clear example of discrimination on the basis of race and culture.

A few years later, India led the international protests against the new apartheid legislation and in 1949, after the riots in Durban which left dozens of Indians dead and thousands homeless, the Government of India tried to flex both political and military muscle to prevent further abuse of Indians in the country. None of these measures had any effect on Indian conditions in South Africa, but the examples indicate the depth and vigour of pan-Indian solidarity in this early phase of decolonisation.

A closer look at these concerns betrays the somewhat paternalist character of this solidarity, however. Since the 1890s religious and cultural figures in India had expressed concern about the fate of the expatriate Indian populations in Mauritius, the Caribbean, Fiji and South Africa. Missionaries were sent out by the Arya Samaj and later by those adhering to the orthodox (sanatan) interpretation of Hinduism, despite initial worries about the polluting effects of crossing the ocean. Also, Muslim organisations like the Deoband madrassa in Uttar Pradesh and Sufi orders sent missionaries abroad. The mission was to uplift the lower caste 'coolies' and to prevent conversions to another faith. Beneath the progressive veneer of pan-Indian solidarity, communal divisions were deepened and purification of practices and categories commenced. One of the victims of this work of purification was in fact the celebration of Muharram as a pan-Indian festival, which ceased to play a role in the 1970s.

Bollywood imaginations
The final issue that Raman touches upon is what India means to South African Indians today. The brief answer is three things: a site of religious pilgrimage for some, a site for shopping for others, and for most, the land of Bollywood and film stars. The need to look beyond South Africa, to identify some sort of 'Indianness' is still there – today in the face of a sense of marginalisation and non-recognition in the post-Apartheid order. But India is not a destination of migration or a place to seek education.

Many young Indians leave South Africa and they go where young whites and non-whites are going: Australia, Canada, the US and the UK. The resting place for the imagination today is in the culture of modern transnational Indian communities in London, Melbourne, New York or Toronto. Bollywood products experienced a steady decline in popularity in South Africa for decades until a new wave of films targeted a teenage audience and took up themes around non-resident Indian (NRI) identities, and more importantly, arrived in South Africa with English subtitles. A new generation which grew up almost without Indian vernaculars could now follow and understand a new generation of Hindi films.

These films and their stars have achieved an unprecedented global mainstream status, making them perfect and well-packaged symbols of recognition of modern Indianness – of an identity as modern Indians, distanced both from Indian tradition and from an erstwhile 'coolie' status. While this phenomenon can be regarded as a symptom of a 'diasporic desire', a certain longing for a glossy and global Indianness, it coexists with the splintering of smaller groups of South African Indians into multiple transnational identifications: descendants of Gujarati Muslims seeing themselves as parts of a universal Muslim civilisation that converses in Arabic and English; a global Tamil network that projects Tamil suffering in Sri Lanka onto a global narrative of Tamil loss and misrecognition; recently converted Pentecostal Christians for whom Jerusalem and Kentucky become more important than Chennai and Jaffna; and of course conservative Hindus whose solidarity with the Indian nation state is reproduced through identification with a protracted and global conflict with Muslims, Pakistan and 'Islamic' terrorists.

It is in view of these indisputable facts that I propose that we critically rethink whether 'diaspora' is a useful concept that can help us to understand the complexity of contemporary identity politics in South Africa and elsewhere.

~Thomas Blom Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, Stanford.

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