Indian Diaspora: Roots and Routes

“A diaspora is a social construct founded on feeling, consciousness, memory, mythology, history, meaningful narratives, group identity, longings, dreams, allegorical and virtual elements all of which play an important role in establishing a diaspora reality. At a given moment in time, the sense of connection to a homeland must be strong enough to resist forgetting, assimilating or distancing.” (Shuval 2000).

With an estimated 20 million people worldwide, the Indian diaspora is the third largest, behind the African and Chinese diasporas. The assumption of a shared identity that unites people living dispersed in transnational space is the central defining feature of diasporas. People of Indian origin reside in over 70 countries; its members come from regions across India, and represent dozens of religions.

The Indian diaspora is linked with displaced communities brought to serve the Empire in imperial territories and coexisting there with other races with markedly ambivalent and contradictory relationships with their respective motherlands. They can be defined as migrants who see themselves straddling the border of cultures and nations, seeking to exist in one, or, sometimes, as in the case of Indo-Mauritians, in both.

The history of the Indian diaspora suggests several currents of migration. Each of these currents has had its own specific background, characteristics, and conditions. Some of them caused variations in the way migrants reproduced ‘Indian culture’ abroad and/or how they were received by the host societies. In most areas, Indian migrants comprise small minorities, with the exception of Mauritius and Fiji where they are politically and – to some extent — economically dominant.

An extension of the Indian national family

The first and eldest migration flow was that of traders who began leaving the subcontinent in the earliest times and continue to do so until today in search of trade and business. One of the key characteristics of this so-called ‘trade diaspora’ may be the fact that most of it consisted of ‘temporary’ or ‘circular’ migration. Sons were sent to search for trade elsewhere, but also to eventually return. These traders acted as filters through which other cultures were linked with their own. Frequently, they developed a more cosmopolitan lifestyle due to their exposure to other cultures.

The second most important current was that of Indian indentured labourers who left to replace the freed slaves in the nineteenth century plantation economies. Although most of them may have intended to return to the subcontinent, in fact, many ended up staying to create new homelands abroad. The main difference with the trade diaspora, however, is the fact that much of this migration was ‘forced’ and not voluntary.

The third current includes various migrations after the Second World War. First, many Muslims migrated from India to East and West Pakistan, while Hindus departed from Pakistan to migrate to India. Hindus in Pakistan as well as Muslims in India did not feel that the new governments were able to protect their minority rights.

Meanwhile, many highly educated professionals left India to find jobs as teachers, lawyers, and doctors in Europe (especially the UK), the USA and Canada. This has recently occurred again with the exodus of many IT professionals. It is to this category of overseas Indians that the recently elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has turned, during his visit to America, to appeal to them to help him develop his nation’s economy, and to “join hands to serve our Mother India”.

The 2.8 million Indian-Americans are indeed one of the wealthiest diaspora communities in the US which can help Modi spur trade and foreign investment. Modi views Indians all over the world as an extension of the Indian national family. This is especially so for the Indian diaspora in the USA, given their remarkable commercial and professional success.

The terms ‘non-resident Indian’ (NRI), and ‘people of Indian origin’ (PIO) have special significance in the process of talking about the diaspora as it relates to the Indian experience. An NRI is a person of Indian citizenship, who holds an Indian passport, but resides outside of India; meanwhile, a PIO is a person of Indian descent, who has the nationality and citizenship of another country, and is a foreign passport holder. During his Madison Square Garden speech on 28 September, the Indian PM announced that people of Indian origin will benefit from a lifetime Visa Card.

Religion, family and culture

India is diverse, and so too are its migrants. It is acknowledged that Indian migrants abroad tend to reproduce their own religions, family patterns, and cultures as much as possible. At the same time, however, they adjust to local circumstances. Caste and language issues have to be negotiated in new environments. This is not a natural process, but one in which great efforts need to be made – sometimes in an effort to maintain one’s own culture, but also with regard to the new homeland.

The prefix ‘Indian’ in the Indian diaspora needs some clarification. The implication of the prefix is that there is a single India with its people, who are somehow united under one flag. This is far from obvious. The unity of India is a construction or, at its best, referred to as ‘unity in variety’. It has to be emphasized that Indians abroad, including Indo-Mauritians, do not so much identify with India as a nation but with the ‘homeland’, that is, the specific region where the migrants come from. They often refer to themselves as Tamils, Telugus, Marathis, Gujaratis, etc. Inasmuch as they have created a ‘myth’ about their ‘homeland’, it appears that region and locality are much more important in structuring the migrants’ identities than ‘nationality’ or even ‘religion’ – if we are to believe negative slogans prevalent in some Mauritian homes to the effect that, for example, “Tamils are not Hindus”.

The life and existence of Indian migrants have been vividly represented by VS Naipaul in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ through Hanuman House. The transplantation of the indentured labourers – after the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire – happened at a time when there was an urgent need for cheap labourers in the plantation colonies throughout the world. Thus, shiploads of Indian labourers, mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, were transported to many parts of the world, including the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.

In order to get rid of their poverty amidst the ’darkness’ of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and to change their luck in the other part of the Empire, the Indian indentured migrants willingly abandoned their homeland in order to explore the possibilities of success in an ‘alien’ land. But the journey across the seas was a calamity. It meant a traumatic break from their origins, traditions and beliefs. So, in the other part of the world, they built their own private hemisphere, a replica of remembered India with its rituals and beliefs. They had to struggle hard to maintain their cultural, religious and linguistic identity. Thus, being displaced, they suffered from a sense of alienation and identity crisis.

In his essay ‘East Indian’, Naipaul states that migration from India took place at a time when travel was not easy and to the Indian migrants, crossing the seas seemed like “end of the world”. So, they took everything with them: beds, brass, vessels, musical instruments, images and idols, holy books, sandalwood sticks, astrological almanacs, etc. To be Indian was to perform an imagined version of Indianness. It was, as Naipaul believes, a kind of less uprooting than it appears: they were taking a miniature India with them and with their blinkered view of the world they were able to recreate Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh wherever they went.

When the indentured system was abolished, many people, especially the later arrivals, became destitute, without land or repatriation. In fact, many immigrants themselves were unwilling to return to India due to insecurity. Reconnecting with the homeland was not a possibility to be envisaged. Naipaul very aptly describes the plight of those migrants in a touching passage in ‘A House for Mr Biswas’:

“They could not speak English and were not interested in the land where they lived; it was a place where they had come for a short time and stayed longer than they expected. They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness.”

The life of the protagonist, Mr Biswas, as he struggles to preserve his own identity in an alien environment and tries to forge an authentic selfhood, almost mirrors overseas Indians’ relentless struggle against the forces that try to subdue their individuality as they search for their own roots in the sociocultural environment around them. The Indian diaspora are called upon to reproduce their culture, their way of life, their customs, traditions, rituals, and philosophy in an often hostile environment, as was evident during the campaign for our Independence where slogans such as ‘envelopper nou pa le’, etc.

Naipaul, who is himself a third generation Indian migrant, echoes the attitudes of many of our own Mauritian people of Indian origin, especially the youngsters, when he says,

“I barely understood the rituals and ceremonies I grew up with… my Hinduism was really an attachment to my family.”

The Indian diaspora, like everyone else, are now living in the age of globalization which destabilises a firm understanding of individual and group identity because it blurs the boundaries between socio-political entities – such as citizens and nation-states through processes of migration. As a reaction to the destabilization of identity and the need of members of the diaspora to define their identity within their countries of migration, the Indian diaspora have to learn to live in what Homi Bhabha calls the ‘third space’, where there exists an intermingling of cultures, which is already a work in progress in Mauritius. They need to move away from reductive and ‘essentialist’ notions of culture and nation, and become part of a transnational culture where they transcend old concepts of boundaries and frontiers.

* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014

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