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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

Komagata Maru—April–September 1914
A basic postulate of the British Empire was that subjects could settle anywhere in the empire. However, the “settler colonies” (Australia and Canada) were reticent to allow people of color to settle on their shores: “For white man’s land we fight/To Oriental grasp and greed/We’ll surrender, no, never/Our watchword be ‘God save the King’/White Canada for ever.” [note 10]

Asiatic Exclusion Leagues across the Americas fought against Asians even as lumber, railroad, and mining capitalists needed their labor power. The British Empire and the U.S. came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” against the Asian workers. Theodore Roosevelt told Canadian members of parliament, “Gentlemen, we have got to protect our workingmen. We have got to build up our western country with our white civilization, and we must retain the power to say who shall or shall not come to our country.” [note 11]

Along the Pacific seaboard, in numerous gurdwaras and khalsa diwans (meeting places), Punjabi peasants, rebels, and army men discussed the exclusions and racism. One enterprising Sikh, Gurdit Singh, gathered support for a scheme to challenge the exclusions by transporting Asians to Canada. He hired a ship, the Komagata Maru, that its passengers renamed the Guru Nanak Jahaj. When the ship reached Vancouver, it was not permitted to land, and after a scuffle at the docks, the ship was forced to return to India. In Calcutta, the British tried to isolate the returnees and rush them to Punjab. Unable to control the Punjabis, a riot broke out. The story of the Komagata Maru entered the lore of the overseas population.

Two consequences follow from the incidents of 1913–14. First was the understanding among Asians in the plantation colonies of their common socioeconomic destinies. Second was an intensified call from Indian nationalists for an end to indenture. They sought to stop the abuse of the labor power and the violation of females. The campaign against indenture, indeed, transformed the Congress, the Indian nationalist party, from a lawyers’ organization to one capable of mass politics. It was the working-class desi diaspora that turned the Congress into a genuinely Indian party.

High-Tech Indenture


“[Asian Indians] are hard working and devoted to the city and this country. They give us their culture and their taxes—and their wonderful restaurants.”
-Mayor Ed Koch of New York City in 1981. [note 12]

After World War II, the English economy suffered from a deficiency in its reserve work force. The arrival of Caribbean and Asian (mostly desi) labor into the transport and textiles trades expanded the labor supply and enabled English capital to stabilize wages. The 1957 launching of Sputnik by the U.S.S.R. moved the U.S. government to secure additional technical workers in order to expand its own space and armament industries. With the passage of Medicare, the U.S. also needed to rapidly expand its medical personnel. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, in part, to attract these workers, many of whom came from Asia, from where immigration had been effectively ended in 1924.

With the large capital accumulation from oil profits, the Gulf nations sought technical labor to Europeanize governments and businesses. The largest migration of technical workers to that area came from South Asia.

The arrival, between 1967 and 1972, of Asian Indians expelled from Eastern Africa (particularly Kenya and Uganda) challenged the United Kingdom establishment. These families, who had lost most of their movable property, came as a resettling population and not as a labor migration solely to fill the needs of the U.K. economy. The collective migration after WWII bore the mark of temporality, important not for its cultural diversity but for its labor. Immigration laws were designed to control incoming labor for the needs of the capitalist industries. These migrations were not designed as permanent movements of population.

The U.S. Congress passed the 1965 Act as it ended the Bracero program (1942–64), which had drawn chiefly Mexican labor into the agro-businesses and farms of the American Southwest. The 1965 Act, instead, drew in labor mainly to the high-tech sector (“skilled and unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in short supply”). Once the Indian immigrants established themselves, most sought to remain in the U.S. and in the process founded Indo-American communities in many of the largest cities. The high-tech workers formed the foothold; then came friends, family and others, many of who came without the highly educated skills of the first immigrants. Today, about half the taxi drivers in New York City are desis—an indication of the new wave of middle-class immigrants who hold working-class jobs in Europe and the U.S. The characterization of Indians as strictly professionals is no longer accurate, and sometimes functions to promote the idea of Indians as the “model minority,” to the disservice of other minorities.

The assemblage of post-1945 desis in the industrialized world took two distinct forms: a gathering for a conservative and reactionary agenda and a gathering for a progressive and liberal-socialist one. The conservative agenda was forged by the Indian government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Council), a partisan Hindu organization. Both groups seek the desi diaspora for their accumulated capital, and what they will donate to the party. Their interest, therefore, lies in successful businessmen and professionals and they tend to largely ignore the working class.

The Indian government, under the stewardship of Rajiv Gandhi, spent a vast amount of the foreign exchange reserves with the naive understanding that if Indian businesses imported capital goods, they could expand their export potential. As a result there was a very small expansion of exports, and India ran a substantial account deficit. In order to close that shortfall, the government turned to three overseas lenders: commercial banks, the International Monetary Fund, and the newly invented “Non-Resident Indian” or NRI. With the establishment of the New Economic Policy (so-called liberalization) in July 1991, the Non-Resident Indian has been integrated firmly into the economic plan of the Indian state.

The VHP was founded in Bombay in 1964 as a mass front to draw heterogeneous Hindu sects into a united Hindu platform. In the 1980s, the VHP came into its own as part of the sangh parivar, which comprises the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a right-wing ideological organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As part of a political strategy to take control of the state, the Hindu right pushed its agenda forward on two issues: the December 6, 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya and the end to compensatory discrimination for the oppressed classes.

The VHP believes that overseas Hindus can contribute capital and legitimacy to their mission to Hinduize India and expand her economy, while providing leverage from overseas. To win over the overseas Hindus, the VHP has put forward its organization as a means of finding solutions for all the social anxieties of the migrants. Desis are urged to live their lives as models for the second generation, whom they want to continue to give allegiance to India both monetarily and culturally. Discouraging desis against full assimilation into foreign lands, thereby reducing NRI involvement in the affairs of their new homes and their spending money in these “immoral” localities, has resulted in greater VHP access to the funds of overseas Indians.

The character of these gatherings by the Indian state and the VHP is unhealthy, for these organizations ask for overseas Indian money to be used exclusively for the far-off homeland. While sending money to India is itself not bad, the question that must be asked is what that money is going to be used for. The Indian state has used funds from overseas in part to prop up its increasingly unpopular economic policies, while the VHP has used such money for its militant Hindu agenda in India. Furthermore, the gathering of a narrow class of overseas desis has abandoned the others as a whole, leaving out the working class and ex-indentured laborers. Some see this political act as responsible for friction, for example between Guyanese and Asian Indians in New York.

The effects of this conservative gathering produced a spirited response from the progressive side of the desi diaspora. Those setting today’s progressive agendas derive inspiration from the Ghadar Party and the variety of struggles fought by Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in England from the 1940s to the present. The first set of progressive organizations formed in the U.K. diaspora were in the guise of groups like the Indian Workers Association and the many women’s organizations created to combat the conservative idea of womanhood propagated by the VHP and its like. In response to the growing problem of domestic violence in Asian communities, a number of shelters, hotlines, and advocacy groups have been formed in the U.S., including Sakhi (New York City), Narika (Oakland, California), Sneha (Cheshire, Connecticut), and Ashraya (Providence, Rhode Island). A critique of the rigid notion of “culture” has also come from desi homosexual groups, many of who emerged in the 1990s (such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association in New York). They want to create the space to redefine the desi identity in the eyes of the homeland and the new land.