Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Desi Diaspora

Indian Migration and Nationalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

An immigrant Punjabi family in America c. 1900s

An immigrant Punjabi family in America c. 1900s

Indian Migration and Nationalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Diaspora is migration during the era of nationalism, not just a scattering of peoples but also a politico-emotional gathering in far-off lands under the sign of the nation. Diaspora is an idea that only makes sense in the era of nationalism. Prior to nationalism’s birth in the 19th century, people moved routinely. They traveled from their local places of birth and social sustenance to territories so far that they lost touch with their early homes. Most of these migrants did not think of themselves as part of a coherent diaspora, mainly because they did not see their places of origin as part of a national project. When people of the Indian subcontinent (desis, or those from the desh, homeland), for instance, commonly traveled to Southeast Asia or to Africa as part of the world of the Indian Ocean (that has been called the Afrasian Sea), there is no evidence that they saw themselves as part of a desi diaspora. [note 1] On the contrary, they took with them social practices, habits and materials from their homelands, moved to far-off locales and set to work in the construction of a new ethos, one that was defined in conversation with the materials and ideas that they found in those parts.

The ancient and early modern migrations of people from the Indian subcontinent are a prelude to the diaspora of the 19th century and after, but they are not a part of it. What defines the diaspora of the 19th century onwards, in the era of nationalism, is that as people left a homeland that was already seen as a “nation,” they continued to bear fond memories of that homeland and saw themselves as somewhat patriotic to it. Even though the word diaspora comes to us from the Greek for scattering (which implies any migration) and even though it is classically used to refer to the Jewish Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. [note 2], the concept in modern times refers specifically to the idea of a departure from a national homeland and a nostalgia for that homeland. Thus the two kinds of migration should not be conflated.

Plantation Indenture

With the end of plantation slavery in the 1830s, British imperial authorities searched for labor to replace the slaves on their sugar plantations. “Free” labor was not to replace slave labor, because the planters refused to hire Africans in the Caribbean on negotiable terms and the Africans refused to be hired to work in slave conditions. The imperial plantocracy fell upon the idea of indentured labor first in Mauritius, then elsewhere: hire labor for a term of five years (with the option of an additional five) and then send the worn-out workers back to the care of their families. Recruiters (arkatis) working in the Gangetic Plain and on the Coromandel Coast between 1834 and 1916 sent about five million Indians to distant lands. British colonial capitalists used these indentured workers to produce stimulants (cocoa, tea, coffee, sugar) for the newly industrialized English work force back home.

Alongside the indentured laborers, merchants and dukawallas (Swahili for “shopkeepers”) traveled to southern and eastern Africa, using their extensive contacts and experience in the Indian Ocean trade to insert themselves into the colonial economy. Areas of trade abandoned by the colonial state and by imperial capital—such as tending shops in the interior, trading in lesser commodities, and processing cotton for export—became the preserve of the Indian merchant. It was these merchants who hired M. K. Gandhi in 1894, and this period of time in South Africa that earned him a place in the history of the desi diaspora.

Whereas from the inception of indenture the planters and the colonial state saw a community of laborers, overseas Indians did not immediately see themselves as a distinct community. The first non-Europeans to consider the indentured laborers as a community were the Indian missionaries (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Hindu reformers noticed the overseas population and felt inclined to go and “reclaim” them for the “motherland.” The missionaries attempted to teach the dispersed peoples a language (standardized Hindi), customs, and a religion their various and competing brands of Hinduism). Clerics of Islam also traveled to the far-flung colonies, and they too attempted to “reclaim the lost brethren” for the homeland’s Islam. Against the aggressive and state-sponsored Christian missionaries and the richly textured unorthodox popular cultures of indenture, the Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy fought to repatriate them into their native religions.

Although there were differences among the Indian organizations, they operated similarly. Each attempted to gather overseas Indians and connect them with their distant homeland through the reintroduction of language, religion, and culture, which the overseas (ex-) indentured laborers sought for their children and themselves. The gathering succeeded in reestablishing “India” in the central consciousness, but the orthodox leadership referred to culture as the old customs of spirituality and domesticity, not the actual life experiences of the people.

The actual lives of the desis included the brutality of indenture, the monotony of work life on a plantation, the attempt to find solace in religious and spiritual traditions, the divisions between the Africans and the Asians, the difficulty of forming family and other social networks in the midst of the plantation, and the attempt to make the landscape both familiar and sacred. These conditions were basic to the everyday life of the people, but the orthodox leadership ignored them.

The colonial state gave the orthodox priests the authority to speak for “Indian culture,” and these priests made the most of it by reducing the richness of the people’s traditions—solidarity, struggle, peasant customs, folk values—to spiritualism and religion. The daily struggles gave rise to an ideology, igniting a series of events in the diaspora in 1913-14. The various movements led by indentured laborers in different colonies during that period offer us some indication of the laborers’ self-consciousness of their common condition. Bharath, one indentured laborer, sang of the plantocracy taking labor from the ships, the jahaj: “take out four hundred, five hundred, some pick out de Jamaica, some pick out de b.g. [Guyana]/natal ooutari [takes], jamaica ooutari, guyana ooutari.” [note 3] The events of 1913-14 made it clear that Indian laborers around the world, from Fiji to British Guyana to Canada, shared a common predicament: their labor was needed, but not their lives. Come and work, but do not come and live here: that was the message given to the laborers, who struggled to make sense of their existence in racially charged areas, given the British efforts to divide the local populations (in Fiji, between desis and Fijians; in the Caribbean, between desis and Africans brought in).

Four events of 1913-14 signaled the gathering of desi awareness as outcasts in the international community: Kunti’s Fiji letter, the foundation and activities of the Ghadar Party, the strikes in Natal, and finally, in 1914, the trials of the Komagata Maru.