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


Kunti’s Cry—May 1913

The plight of Indians in Fiji was dramatically brought home when Kunti’s story appeared in the newspaper Bharat Mitra on May 8, 1913. In her widely circulated letter, Kunti claimed to have been sent to work in an isolated part of the field by her overseer. The overseer followed her and tried to rape her, but she freed herself, jumped into a nearby river, and was luckily saved by a young desi. When she tried to report the incident to the white plantation owner he said, “Go away, I don’t want to hear about field things.” [note 4] “Field things” were a common occurrence in most plantations, and Kunti’s letter dramatized the immorality of the brutal plantation system. The indentured laborers worked in gangs under an overseer who treated them as chattel. “No trick of sophistry or twist of logic,” wrote a nineteenth-century Creole writer, “can ever avail to defend the system of semi-slavery paraded under the guise of indentured immigration.” [note 5] Low wages, poor living conditions (treatment transferred from the African slave to the indentured desi), terrible oppression by the overseers, disdain from the managers, and no avenues of redress combined with unhappy futures made the plantation a very bleak place. Revolt against this unjust cooliedom [note 6] was frequent. The colonial legal body sided with the planters, prosecuting indentured laborers on criminal grounds for labor protests.

Although the British immediately doubted its veracity, Kunti’s letter shocked Indian nationalists and its message struck a chord in distant plantations around the British Empire. The letter and the outcry over it spread to plantation colonies whose East Indian inhabitants identified with the issues of violence against women, such as rape, murder, and suicide. The story was immortalized in 1914 by Totaram Sandhya and Benarasidas Chaturvedi in 1914 My Twenty-One Years in Fiji, which was very popular in British India.

Ghadar Party—October 1913

Peasants and intellectuals from the Punjab founded the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in October 1913. They had come to the United States in the wake of the 1907 political agitation in that region of India. These peasants, rebels, and army men settled along the Pacific seaboard, where they came into contact with other people of color who shared common stories of oppression. Some of the intellectuals also came into contact with anarchists and socialists, notably with the Industrial Workers of the World. Their political party, Ghadar, became a vehicle for gathering the desi diaspora on issues affecting those in distant lands, and its periodicals spread the common indenture story.

In order to educate Indians about their situation, the party launched the multilingual paper Ghadar on November 1, 1913. Ghadar (Urdu for “revolt”) did not just work for the freedom of India, but also for Indians overseas who bore the marks of the “new system of slavery.” In Ghadar, Hardayal wrote on July 14, 1914: “Tribe after tribe are ready to mutiny. Your voice has reached China, Japan, Manila, Sumatra, Fiji, Java, Singapore, Egypt, Paris, South Africa, South America, East Africa and Panama.” [note 7]

With branch offices in many of the plantation colonies, Ghadar was indeed the voice of the overseas Indian calling for an end to exploitation by the British both in India and in the empire at large. “The world derisively accosts us: O Coolie, O Coolie,” the Ghadar-di Gunj sang. “We have no fluttering flag of our own. Our home is on fire. Why don’t we rise up and extinguish it?”viii The center of the agitation was indeed the “homeland,” but the Ghadar activists also dramatized the unequal treatment of Indians in the empire. Ghadar, along with Gandhi’s Natal paper, Indian Mirror, and other pamphlets and publications, took the tale of injustice around the empire. Their political education was given a symbol and a manifestation in the Natal strikes of late 1913.

The Natal strikes—October-November 1913
In South Africa, Natal’s plantations (sugar on the coast, coal mines in the interior) resembled those in the rest of the empire. In a bid to further control labor, the Natal government demanded a poll tax. Initially, Gandhi and the merchant-dominated Natal Indian Congress (NIC) did not champion the cause of labor, for their primary short-term demand was the repeal of the tax. By 1913, the NIC needed to broaden its support base, so it made the tax issue an integral part of a movement for justice through the improvement of working conditions. In mid-October 1913, Thambi Naidoo, president of the Johannesburg Tamil Benefit Society, represented the NIC at a meeting in the coal-mining district of Natal. After skirmishes with the mining company, 2,000 Indian miners went on strike on October 17. Within two weeks, about 5,000 workers in the area also put down their tools.

Unfortunately, the colonial state was unwilling to negotiate, and the mining companies were in no hurry to retrieve the coal. Gandhi and the miners tried to force a confrontation when 4,000 of them marched illegally into the Transvaal. The South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, said, “Mr. Gandhi appeared to be in a position of much difficulty. Like Frankenstein, he found his monster an uncomfortable creation and he would be glad to be relieved of further responsibility for its support.” [note 9]

In the south, another “monster” made its appearance, without the assistance of the NIC: 15,000 Indian sugarcane workers stopped work in protest against their working and living conditions and the poll tax. This strike received more of a response because the unpicked sugar was subject to rot and was being burned in “cane fires,” and the strike threatened to spread to nearby Durban and to create an alliance between the Indians and the recently subdued Zulus. The colonial state sent in police to crush the workers. By November, the government had routed the strike, but news of it had not only traveled to other places but had also entered the lore of the anti-imperial struggle.