The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture. If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora does not exist in the singular either. There is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement and migration that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s, when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean. Recent reports mention the emotional visit of the prime minister of Mauritius to the Bihar village from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the British empire. Over a decade ago, there were similar reports about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the prime minister of Trinidad.
In India’s metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad. When the designation NRI first came about, around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration that for many people, NRI only meant Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut. It is said that more than 25 per cent of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers and doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place in their respective professions. This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself. Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversation in middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.
Even in the US, the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students and later, Ghadrites, who made their way to the US in the late-1890s and the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the US was prohibited in 1924. Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US after the immigration reforms of 1965: notwithstanding the common impression that they are affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin’ Donuts franchises around the country and have a huge hand in the motel business. In California’s Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country’s greatest agricultural hubs, 14 per cent of them, according to a 2005 report, lived below the poverty level, 35 per cent did not even have a high school diploma.
The origins of the other Indian diaspora lie elsewhere, in the political economy of colonialism that sent indentured labourers, mainly from the Gangetic heartland and the Tamil country, to forge the white man’s empire of sugar, rubber and cash crops. As one prominent scholar opined, indentured labour was simply a new form of slavery. Nationalist opinion, and the efforts of English sympathisers such as C.F. Andrews, aided in shutting down the system of indenture in 1917, but not before 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage. They lived in appalling conditions, in the lines formerly inhabited by slaves. These Indians tilled the soil and put the food on table: they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our diaspora.
With the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas just past, it is well to reflect on the future of the Indian diaspora. Among the affluent Indians in Britain, Canada and the US, there is some desire to influence events in India itself. But as the massive exodus of Indo-Fijians since the coups of 1987 and 2000 suggests, “mother India” is frankly unable to do much to enhance the rights of its dispersed children besides engaging in grand rhetorical exercises in impotent institutions such as the Commonwealth.
India’s policymakers are mainly interested in how the diaspora can feed the country’s growth engine. But we need a less impoverished and more civilisational view that makes us aware not merely of the accumulated narratives of our Silicon Valley miracles and the annual triumph of Indian American children at the National Spelling Bee, but also of the histories of those Indians who, braving conditions of extreme adversity, nurtured new forms of music, literature, religious worship, and even conviviality. It is a remarkable fact that, from within the depths of Ramcharitmanas country in Fiji, we have had the first novel ever written in Bhojpuri. Our Indian diaspora, complex and variegated, needs a hefty Purana.
The writer teaches at University of California, Los Angeles, and is the author of ‘The Other Indians: A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America’