As I exit most mornings off Interstate 84 into Hartford, Connecticut, I pass a corner where about 30 Southasians gather to catch the bus. Most of them wear backpacks, and many have headphones on, listening, I imagine, to the sounds of Lata Mangeshkar or Krish. These are in-sourced workers, on short-term contracts through firms such as Tata Consultancy Services or Wipro, working for the large insurance companies such as Aetna or Travelers Insurance.
Along Farmington Avenue, where the software engineers cluster, is a nondescript store called Cosmos International. Run by a family from the Baltic region, Cosmos sells Southasian, Arab and Eastern European packaged food and spices, as well as fresh food and snacks from the Subcontinent. It is an oasis for the software workers and for the larger Southasian community in Hartford, a place one can buy rice with a DVD of the very latest film, or find halal goat alongside a tongue scraper.
On the floor of the store sit a series of free newspapers and magazines produced for the Southasian community, and funded entirely by advertisements. If on a recent day you were to bother to look through the articles, you would have read of a meeting held in Washington, DC, at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The head of the agency, Rajiv Shah, had convened the meeting to talk about ‘enhancing partnerships between USAID and the Indian diaspora in development efforts in India’. Another story was on the powerful commercial lobbies that work in the halls of the US Congress to ensure greater business opportunities for US firms – in India mainly, but also for some of the other countries in the Subcontinent.
These are the elements of the diaspora that strike me on a regular basis, the worlds of lives and labour, of pleasure and power. Not far from Cosmos sits another store, this one run by a woman from Trinidad whose family came to the island from eastern India a century and a half ago. She makes goat curry and roti, and is able to break into sentences of Trinidadian-Bhojpuri, laughing all the time. Her son is interested in India, but not enough to go there. He has other dreams.
Arkati siren song
People always move. Before the modern world, people travelled from their places of birth and social sustenance to territories so far away that they lost touch with their earlier homes. Long land routes over mountains, and sea routes across treacherous waters, made such journeys both expensive and often singular – only those who made their lives as traders across water and hills went back and forth. Our early migrants settled in the islands of today’s Indonesia, in eastern Africa, in today’s Malaysia; they travelled to Persia, Egypt and beyond, perhaps as far off as Spain, to become part of what would later be called the Roma population.
| Outpost: A Sikh temple in Stockton, California,
one of the centres of Ghadar activity, 191
Our region has a longstanding relationship with Southeast Asia and with East Africa, with the interchange of peoples, goods and ideas. This goes back to the ancient world, spurred on by trade between the Roman Empire and the various monarchies of Southasia. The most dramatic period of the interchange between Africa and Asia, around the Indian Ocean, begins after 400 AD, when peoples, animals, vegetation and ideas moved back and forth to cast their influence across huge swaths of territory.
A gulf divides these earlier migrations with the diaspora of the modern era. As the modern migrants left a homeland that was already seen as a nation, they continued to bear fond memories and saw themselves as patriotic. In this modern era, technologies of transport and communication also enable the connections between the migrants’ new homes and the old homes to remain intact. It is the umbilical cord that stretches across the planet that gathers the modern migrants into the diaspora. Because of the centrality of the nation to the diaspora, it is inevitable that my own story, as related below, will be partial. It will not tell of all those of the Subcontinent who went across the planet. The tempos of different migrations are given by the separate national histories; there is less here on Sri Lanka and Nepal, and much more from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The desis formed a diaspora when they left the Subcontinent at a time when nationalist ideas had already become vibrant, either through concrete struggles or through the cultural materials – songs and stories – that had become commonplace in their area. During the 19th century, the five regions within the Subcontinent that sent the largest number of migrants across the globe were Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Bihar – all areas that had begun to experience struggles against imperial rule.
Massive rebellions of enslaved peoples in the Americas, a decline in the market share of slave-plantation profits, as well as a rise in anti-slavery agitation in the Atlantic periphery brought a gradual end to chattel slavery during the 19th century. The manual-labour-driven production system of the plantations required a sustained supply of workers. The slave system had not been able to reproduce itself, since so many enslaved Africans died in the violence and neglect that marked the system. The Chinese emperor Liang Qichao allowed some workers to leave the Middle Kingdom, but when reports of mistreatment reached the Qing court, the emperor stopped the flow. Southasian workers took up the slack as indentured labour; Queen Victoria did not share the Qing government’s qualms.
Indentured servitude was a horrid system. Displaced peasants of the Ganga and Kaveri plains came under the spell of arkatis (recruiters), who sent about five million individuals from the Subcontinent to distant lands between 1834 and 1916. Arkatis exaggerated the potential wages, told the peasants that their new homes were not far away, and underplayed the conditions of work – exaggerations that made the betrayal even stronger. Work was atrocious, and return to India impossible. As one indentured labourer, Moolian, said of his life, ‘I no go no way again. I have to wuk. I have to slave Trinidad.’ Capitalism sapped the energy of the indentured workers, who produced the stimulants (coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar) needed to increase the vitality of the new industrial workforce in Europe and on the eastern coast of the United States.
The indentured became known as coolies. The word has as many origins as the homes of the far-flung desis: it resembled the Tamil for ‘hire’ (kuli), but also sounds like the Chinese for ‘bitter labour’ (ku-li), although the Fijians began to use it to refer to dogs. Between 1913 and 1916, struggles across the plantation colonies sent a strong message to British India, and provided a spur for militancy in the homeland. It begins in Fiji, where a plantation worker named Kunti accused her overseer of rape. In May 1913, the Bharat Mitra, a Calcutta newspaper, ran a story on Kunti’s plight, which struck a chord across British India. The following year, a girmitiya (a ‘labourer’, named from the ‘agreement’ signed for indenture) named Totaram Sanadhya wrote a much-read book, Fiji dweep mein mere ikees varsh (My 21 years in the Fiji islands) on the general crisis in the plantations. Sanadhya eventually became a Gandhian activist, living at Sabarmati Ashram with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
In August 1913, Southasian farmworkers and students (primarily Punjabi migrants) gathered in Stockton, California, to form the Ghadar Party. They were angry at British imperialism, but also frustrated with the Indian National Congress. ‘Freedom will not come through supplication,’ their poets sang. ‘Political power will not come by appeal/ Don’t offer cowardly petitions/ Lift up the sword, they will not remain/ What have your petitions wrought?/ Brutal foreigners have plundered our homeland.’ The sentiment of complete independence thus came almost two decades before the Congress took it to heart. ‘Nation after nation are ready to rise up,’ the Ghadar Party’s newspaper proclaimed in July 1914. ‘Your voice has reached China, Japan, Manila, Sumatra, Fiji, Java, Singapore, Egypt, Paris, South Africa, South America, East Africa and Panama.’
In South Africa, the dukawallas (merchants) felt the sharp edge of discrimination, and it is here that the young barrister Gandhi learned what it meant to be an Indian. Eventually, the mutiny began in Natal where, on 17 October 1913, miners and sugarcane workers (mainly Tamil speakers) took the lead against racial discrimination and economic injustice. Gandhi, who represented the merchants, was forced into the fray. ‘Mr Gandhi appeared to be in a position of much difficulty,’ wrote South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. ‘Like Frankenstein, he found his monster an uncomfortable creation and he would be glad to be relieved of further responsibility for its support.’ This ‘monster’ was the mass struggle of sugarcane workers, whose ‘cane fires’ sent a sharp message to Durban and Pretoria. The courage of these workers taught Gandhi about ‘passive resistance’, and it is from them that he learned the strategy and tactics that made him into the ‘Bapu’ figure that he would become. Satyagraha was his word, but its content came from the unknown protestors who courted arrest in the 1910s.
Gusts of internationalism
The next phase of the mutiny began in another British colony, Canada. There, mainly Punjabi workers found themselves reviled even as the supremacist poets sang ‘White Canada Forever’. In May 1914, as a ship carrying a fresh cargo of workers came toward Vancouver, the Canadian press warned of a ‘Hindu Invasion of Canada’. The ship, the Komagata Maru, was finally turned away after two months in the docks in Vancouver. When it reached Budge Budge, in Bengal, a colonial gunboat took it under guard, and the authorities tried to force the returnees to go to the Punjab. A scuffle eventually broke out over the mistreatment of one Gurdit Singh, leading to the death of 20 on board. Many among the remainder took this as a spur to radicalism, and it was their work and inspiration that led to an abortive uprising in February 1915. The Ghadarites were arrested and brought up on a conspiracy charge in Lahore. Their actions spurred the government to pass the Rowlatt Acts, (which allowed the government to routinely arrest people on charges of conspiracy. It was against these Acts that the most militant phase of anti-colonial nationalism opened, from 1919.
The abolition of indenture in 1920 did not end the agitations in the diaspora. Every country with even a handful of people from the Subcontinent opened some kind of organisation to carry the struggle forward: from the Congress Committee of Suva (Fiji) to Nairobi’s Eastern Africa Indian National Congress, to the office of the Congress in Trinidad. Some had thousands of members (the Natal Indian Congress), others only thirty (Bharat Welfare Society in Marysville, California). These organisations typically drew support from all classes, largely because there was widespread agreement that the British had to be ousted from the Subcontinent. Disagreements rose in the realm of tactics (armed violence or lobbying), and over the use made by the well-heeled of these organisations ‘for personal ends’ (as Sarojini Naidu found when she visited a Congress office in New York City).
Across the diaspora, these groups provided a unique service, not only to the communities that lived there but also in offering shelter for exiled revolutionaries. When these fighters came and lived among desis elsewhere, they met people with different ideas and from different political movements. The revolutionaries met with Marxists and Socialists, with Irish Republicans and with pan-Africanists, with anarcho-syndicalist unionists and civil libertarians. These discussions and this interchange of views did much to train a generation or more of nationalists in a cosmopolitan worldview that rejected narrow obscurantism for the gustier currents of internationalist nationalism.
In late 1947, the complexities of decolonisation impacted the diaspora. Now, one was an Indian or a Pakistani, no longer simply an ‘anti-colonial’. The animosities of the Subcontinent influenced the lives of those overseas. Independence did not stem the tide of migration; Britain suffered a deficiency of labour, and turned to the Subcontinent and to the Caribbean to recruit workers.
The Indians and Pakistanis who travelled to Britain during the immediate post-Independence period came from regions already in turmoil as a result of Partition – although, coincidentally, these were the areas that had previously sent the majority of migrants to England. Punjabi soldiers who had been demobilised after each World War had settled in Britain, and they now welcomed their displaced relatives from both sides of the new border. Merchant-marine seamen, so-called lascars, had come in large numbers from Kashmir (mainly what would become Azad Kashmir, the town of Mirpur) and from Bengal (mainly as ship’s cooks from Sylhet, which after 1971 would become part of Bangladesh). These people acted as the bridgeheads for relatives and friends who flocked to their towns (Mirpuris to Bradford) and into their occupations (Sylhetis into the Indian-restaurant trade). They would also find work in the transportation and factory trades.
| White Canada: The Komagata Maru as it
is escorted away from Vancouver;
and the memorial at Budge Budge Ghat in Kolkata
Tensions between Indians and Pakistanis did not vanish, but they did take a secondary place to the primary issue of building a life in Britain, and of fighting racism and social injustice. When migration to Britain slowed due to xenophobic pressure, people from the Subcontinent went off to Europe, the Persian Gulf, South America, the Pacific Rim countries and, above all, to the United States. Those who went to the US after 1965 were twice blessed. Born in the 1940s, they did not participate in the freedom struggles; instead, they were beneficiaries of the new state, whether India or Pakistan. Furthermore, during the 1960s, the US government revised its immigration policy in order to attract highly skilled technical workers (engineers, doctors, scientists). When such desis went to the US, after 1965, they did so in the immediate aftermath of successes on the part of the US civil-rights movement. Once again, these migrants missed out on the struggles that won them privileges. These unacknowledged privileges marked the gathering of the new diaspora in the 1980s, when the states of the Subcontinent turned to them to cover depleted foreign-exchange reserves.
Until the 1970s, the Indian government gave its blessings to the diaspora, but did little to gather the people into a political force. In that decade, the economic dislocations of the Indian economy, the Congress party’s abandonment of economic nationalism and the growth of crude cultural nationalism in its place, led to a reassessment of the role of the diaspora. In 1976, the Emergency government announced ‘steps to encourage investment by non-resident Indians’. The newly minted Non-Resident Indian (NRI) had a new responsibility: no longer was this highly skilled sector to be denigrated as a ‘brain drain’; rather, it was now to be encouraged as a cash cow. In 1982, Manmohan Singh, then part of the Indian Planning Commission, said, ‘Indian communities abroad are noted for their hard work, initiative and enterprise. As a result, they have accumulated large resources of investible funds.’ The Indian government needed this money to cover its newly expanded military and technical imports. But the NRIs failed the government: in the crucial period of liberalisation from 1991 to 1994, only eight percent of foreign direct investment into India came from the NRIs, and thereafter to this day the numbers have decreased further. Despite this inability to live up to the expectations, the NRI is now part of the economic plans of the liberalised state.
The growth of an exclusionary economic identity came alongside the emergence of a xenophobic cultural definition of nationalism. Whereas the earlier history of the diaspora operated with a theory of nationalism as a secular platform to help raise the well being of all people of Indian origin, the post-1970s form of nationalism concentrated on race and religiosity as the foundation of national identity. The reduction of nationalism to race/religion allowed the economic migrants of the 1960s onward to expunge any concern that they had been part of a brain drain. Piousness became a salve for exploitation. Now, the migrants would be part of the cultural unity of India regardless of their territorial location.
Founded in 1964, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) would expand in the 1970s in the advanced industrial states as well as the former plantation colonies. It became the agency that addressed all the social anxieties of the Hindu migrants. The VHP cultivated the removal of desis from the social and political lives of their adopted societies, in order to gain greater access to NRI funds for its own activities. Rather than ask for desis to join their non-desi neighbours to change whatever unjust structures in their new lands bothered them, VHP officials asked them to go inward, to channel their political and social energies into the liberation of a ‘homeland’ that they would have felt guilty for having abandoned. A decade and a half ago, this writer referred to this ostrich-like attitude toward their new homes and the demand that the NRI give money for VHP-type activities as ‘Yankee Hindutva’ (see Himal, September 1996).
In the 1920s, Pandit Banarsidas Chaturvedi, publisher of Indians Abroad and Vishal Bharat, wrote an editorial that strongly criticised the myopic way in which merchant elites among the diaspora spent their money. Rather than attempting to change the inequality in their own society or to transform the structural conditions within India, Chaturvedi wrote, they lavished their wealth on religious organisations,
That our compatriots in the colonies believe in giving is clear from the fact that religious and educational workers from India go to these colonies every year and bring an immense amount of money for their institutions in India. What our colonial friends lack is discrimination in charity. The Indian Association in Mombasa has no money to send even important cablegrams to India, but let some religious fanatic go from India and he will get 2000 shillings from these very people who will not give a penny for a letter to be sent to India!
During the 1920s, this was a small but already identifiable problem. By the 1990s, this was the central problem. The total income of NRIs in the US, Canada and the European Union is now over USD 200 billion, only a fraction of which finds its way to India. Many of the NRIs would probably agree with the ‘king of steel’, Lakshmi Mittal, who said of his investments, ‘I am happy there is an NRI policy. But the government should not look at $50 billion from NRIs. It should look at $500 billion from [multinational corporations]. I do not think any NRI would invest in a major way because of emotional attachment. They want returns, they want results. I love my country. That is fine. But I must get returns as well.’
Rather than turn over funds to the states in their homelands, the most influential of the NRIs have played a central role in their reconfiguration. Wealthy and powerful NRIs joined forces with multinational firms to lobby both the Indian government and the governments of the Atlantic world, to open up crucial sectors of the Indian economy to foreign capital (which often included their own firms). They also worked to re-orient India’s foreign policy from its traditional non-aligned position to a much cosier relationship with the US and Israel. Finally, these influential NRIs provided the intellectual leadership for the roadmap in the creation of the neo-liberal Indian order (from people such as the ‘computer tsar’ Sam Pitrodia to the raft of World Bank economists who now hold government positions, to the Silicon Valley-Bengaluru transfers who have shaped Indian entrepreneurial culture).
The NRIs of today are a far cry from the Ghadar movement, which was disposed not to its own rate of return but to the absence of starvation among the masses. For the Ghadar, nationalism meant care and concern for one’s fellows who lived amongst them in the diaspora and in their homeland. For the NRIs, nationalism means the bottom line, a signal umbilical cord that ties the wealthy in London and New York to the wealthy in Mumbai. The cord is no longer fashioned with love and care; it is now seasoned with dollar bills.
~ For my beloved nephew, Ishan Bose-Pyne, 1994-2010 – jazz musician, chess maestro, physics whiz, Marxist. Always ‘looking for that great jazz note to destroy the walls of Jericho’.