It is a striking phenomenon, but also a fairly well-engrained one. When they migrate overseas, many first-generation Southasians become more overtly nationalistic than their homebound friends and families, probably as a survival mechanism to deal with downgraded or invisible identity. Not surprisingly, however, the host societies see us all as one, more or less. Just as they will not distinguish between a Punjabi and Rajasthani, much less between a Pakistani Punjabi and an Indian Punjabi, the average German, American or Japanese tend to merge the various national identities of the Subcontinent into one indeterminate shade of brown. Whereas within the Subcontinent we distinguish between the NRI and NRP, NRB or NRN, for the rest of the world our diaspora is essentially the Non-Resident Southasian – the NRSa. We are all targeted by the dot-busters in New Jersey, disparaged as ‘Pakis’ in London – the redneck or neo-Nazi is not going to ask for your post-1947 country of origin before using his knuckle-duster.
Still, there is one category of Southasian diaspora communities that goes beyond language, province, state and ethnicity: the universal category of class. The most vocal among the migrants are those who have prospered the most. Rich Subcontinental migrants in the US and the UK are thrusting their self-serving agenda on their countries of origin, demanding dual citizenship and often supporting fundamentalist and obscurantist causes. Then there are those who might not be as prosperous, but are energised by the anger fomented by egregious injustice in their erstwhile homelands.
Distinctions can also be made as to when the migration began. First came those who were shipped as indentured labour to the Caribbean islands, Fiji and Mauritius; and then those who migrated long ago, like the Sikhs of the North American West Coast. But if we leave aside these groups – and others such as the Southasians from East Africa who moved to the UK in the 1960s – the overwhelming majority of migrants come from out of Bihar, Sylhet, Sindh, Punjab and other areas in the immediate post-colonial period, when immigration laws in the host countries were far more relaxed. These migrants were resilient and worked hard, and succeeded in carving out small niches for themselves. The second generation of this category has grown up knowing little of the Subcontinent, and are today focusing on moving up the economic ladder.
The term diaspora encompasses all of these groups, though the ones that dominate public discourse are the cross-Atlantic and European NRSa groups. Indeed, it is mostly the urban middle classes and rural upper classes that migrated permanently. But while much attention is paid to them and their demands, the category of greater importance is made up of those who send money home and have created the remittance economy. These are the single men and women who go to the Gulf countries, Malaysia and elsewhere, to eke out a living for themselves and their families.
The woes and travails of this group have been movingly portrayed by Yasmin Kabir, in her documentary film My Migrant Soul – about Shahjahan Babu, a Bangladeshi who dies alone in Malaysia, cheated by the labour broker and finally by life in a faraway land. Kesang Tseten, a Kathmandu filmmaker, has also created a trilogy that deals with the Nepali diaspora in the Arabian desert – telling of whole villages that have been emptied and crumbling, with the menfolk forced to leave for foreign lands. People might have credited divine intervention for keeping the Nepali economy afloat after 1996, but it was actually the migrant labour that kept the country going. This is a story that is repeated with minor variations throughout the Subcontinent.
Heartache and opportunity
Still, it does not suffice to talk only about those who go beyond the Subcontinent’s borders. References to the diaspora must also include those who migrate within the region, including crossborder movements within Southasia and in-country migrants. The colonial Subcontinent was not divided by so many political boundaries, so when masses of people moved, these were not seen through the prism of nationality and citizenship, nor the mechanism of state control – identity cards, visas, barbed-wire fences. By today, splitting the region into eight countries has brought with it new terminologies and new prejudices.
Migrants within the region have the advantage that they are, to some extent, among their own kind; but their pain and poverty is sometimes even greater. If the movement of people across borders is at least remarked upon because of the geopolitical, diplomatic and security issues involved, movements within countries are less recognised, unless they lead to political and social tension. However, this movement is undoubtedly the largest by size. Each large community of in-region economic migrants carries its own stories of frustration – the Mohajirs or the Pashtun in Karachi, the people from Uttarakhand who man the lower echelons of government in New Delhi. Most diasporic communities know to keep their heads down when living in alien terrain, even within one’s own country. However, sometimes the numbers grow so large that reaction against them rises from the occasional ribald joke to physical attacks, as against Hindi-speakers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by Shiv Sena goons in Maharashtra.
Human history is a story of migration; if we go back in time, we all came from somewhere else. That being the case, it is time to pay more attention to the making of the diaspora and its lived experiences.The discourse on the diaspora within the Subcontinent often tends to neglect refugees and the displaced, but these too are groups that have left their place of origin. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan, once numbering 2.5 million and now down to around 1.7 million, remain one of the largest refugee communities in the world. The Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa refugees of Bhutan have lived for 15 years in camps in southeast Nepal, but are actively creating a new Nepali-speaking global diaspora in countries throughout the West. Not so lucky are the Rohingya refugees of Burma, languishing in Bangladesh; the Chakma in Tripura; and the Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu. This is not to mention those displaced within their own countries, due to violence, environmental destruction and misplaced development programmes.