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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

Finally, after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, secular and progressive desis formed organizations to combat the gathering of Non-Resident Indians by militant Hindu organizations: Concerned South Asians, Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, and South Asians for Communal Harmony. Conservative ideas of “culture” came under strong criticism from these agencies, and they have now been joined by a host of others organized against the bigotry sanctioned mainly by the theological orthodoxy but also by the concept of multiculturalism, which is wary of any criticism of Indian culture.

In 1986, Navroz Mody, a desi professional, died at the hands of the Dotbusters, a racist group in New Jersey. The group took its name by focusing on the symbol of the decorative mark, the bindi or puttu, that many Indian women apply to their foreheads. The Dotbusters provoked many of us who are desis to reassess our lives in the U.S. As we have forged our radical groups (such as FOIL, the Forum of Indian Leftists), feminist centers, gay forums, trade unions (Taxi Worker’s Alliance and Worker’s Awaaz), and youth networks (Youth Solidarity Summer), we have struggled to break down the barriers of misunderstanding.

In the United States, the culture of the desi diaspora now offers new channels of creativity, scholarship, and philosophy to the degree that the dot has been transformed from distasteful to chic. A few years ago, Madonna wore that very dot to inaugurate a revision of the place of India in the U.S. media. But, after three centuries of colonialism, a half-century of neglect, and the double-edged sword of the model minority, we understand that Madonna with a bindi does not offer the path to our future. Progressive desis, those whom the critic Amitava Kumar calls “Red Indians,” ask for a fuller engagement of desi lives within the complexity of America. Many of us may escape the vicissitudes of everyday racism, both against and by us, but there are many energetic antiracist desis who remain dedicated to the widest notion of justice, that the unity we strive to create must be one of understanding.


1 South Asia had a longstanding relationship with Southeastern Asia and with Eastern Africa, with the interchange of peoples, goods, and ideas. This perhaps goes back to the ancient world, spurred on by the
trade between the Roman Empire and the various monarchies of South Asia, but certainly from the year 400 C.E., when the kingdoms of the Malabar coast began a rather deep connection with points east. The cultural interaction influenced both regions, but there was not a mass transit of people with anything like the modern consciousness of the desi diaspora

2 From the ancient world, Jewish notions of a community were centered on cultural practices, various scriptures and a metaphorical idea of “Jerusalem” (not centrally as Palestine, but in a cognate fashion as the idea of Messiah—a time of redemption rather than a geographical place). The idea of a Jewish diaspora, I argue, came together in the 19th century through the modern, nationalist ideology of Zionism—-where “Zion,” the homeland, became crucial to the idea of Jewishness around the world.

3 Noor Kumar Mahabir. The Still Cry: Personal Accounts of East Indians in Trinidad and Tabago during indentureship,
. Ithaca: Tacarigua, 1985. 106

4 Rhoda Reddock. “Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago, 1845-
1917.” Economic and Political Weekly, Review of Women Studies. 26 October 1985. 85-86.

5 Walter Rodney. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1981. 39.

6 The word “cooliedom” stems from the derogative term “coolie,” a reference to Asian workers, including Indians. Cooliedom refers to the state of maltreatment the indentured desis experienced in the racially charged environment of the plantations.

7 Sohan Singh Josh. Hindustan Ghadar Party: A Short History. New Delhi: People’s Publications, 1977. 170-192.

8 Ibid.

9 Maureen Swan. “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike.” Journal of Southern African Studies 10 (April 1984): 252.

10 Hugh Johnston. The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: the Sikh challenge to Canada's Colour Bar. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979. 38.

11 Joan Jensen. Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 62.

12 The New York Times. 17 August 1981.