Sunday, February 29, 2004

Diverse Indian diasporas
Surinder S. Jodhka

Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora
edited by Bhikhu Parekh, Gurharpal Singh and Steven Vertovec. Routledge, London and New York. Rs 595. Pages 227.

SOCIAL scientific literature on the Indian diasporas has come of age. This volume provides abundant evidence to this fact. It brings together 10 papers on diverse themes relating to the people of Indian origin living in different parts of the world. These papers were first presented at a conference in New Delhi in 2000. Perhaps the most interesting part of the volume is the way it highlights diversities within the Indian diasporas.

Not only are they not all dollar-holding affluent Indians living in different countries of the West, but also the histories of their migration, the nature of their contact with India, the manner in which they negotiate with the host society and the extent to which they have preserved their Indian-ness varies a great deal from country to country and among different communities within a country.

Offshore migration of Indians began in 1830 in the form of indentured labour to different colonies of the British. By late 19th century, voluntary migrations for higher education and better employment had also begun. The number of Indians migrating abroad has continued since with varying pace and momentum. Today, there are more than 17 million of them living in different parts of the globe. They are drawn from over a dozen different regions of India and come from virtually every section of Indian society. These diversities continue to be reflected in the diasporas, or perhaps have become greater with time.

Given such a complex state of affairs, the classic definition of diasporas as people ‘longing for an imagined homeland following violent dispersal, as was the case with the Jews, cannot be easily applied to emigrant Indians. It is for this reason that Gurharpal Singh in his introduction argues for a broader and a positive definition of the term. Diaspora can emerge from a growing sense of ethnic consciousness that is sustained by, among other things, a sense of distinctiveness, common history and the belief in a common fate.

The core feature that, according to Singh, defines the Indian diasporas is "its collective imagining of India—of emotions, links, traditions, feelings and attachments—that together continue to nourish a psychological appeal among successive generations of emigrants for the "mother country".

However, even such a broad definition cannot really encapsulate the diversity and complexity of the Indian diasporas. This is quite evident in the essays that follow his introduction. In certain cases, the idea of "mother country" or "collective imagining of India", as suggested by him, do not seem to reflect the prevailing situation well enough. This is particularly the case with some of the early migrants.

The essays on Mauritius, South Africa, Malaysia and Trinidad tend to suggest that the notion of motherland that the Indian populations have in these countries is more of an ideological or mythical construct than the "real" India of today. Over the years, the emigrants in different settings have developed in various diverse ways, having been influenced more by the internal dynamics of their host countries rather than their Indian pasts. The idea of motherland in their imagination is perhaps closer to the-then prevailing cultural reality of the sub-region they migrated from.

Given the temporary nature of their stay and work permits, Indian migrants to the Gulf present a totally different case. The case of Sri Lanka is even more complicated. In a brilliantly argued paper, Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake shows how the discourse of the diasporas can in fact be dangerous in the context of post-colonial societies of South Asia.

In culturally plural societies, different communities struggle for national authenticity. In the new context of nation states, the fact of being from elsewhere could considerably weaken the claims of a historically migrant group to equality and citizenship. In other words, unlike the Western context, where migrants have been able to achieve certain cultural rights through the policies of multiculturalism designed primarily for the "diasporic" communities, the political effects of being named the diasporas could be exactly opposite for cultural minorities in contexts like those of Sri Lanka or India. This is precisely what has been happening to Tamilians in Sri Lanka.

Another four papers focus on more typical cases of what we popularly understand by the category "Indian diasporas". However, these too highlight internal diversities and varieties of experiences that different communities from the sub-continent have had in developed countries of the West. In the case of Australia, for example, the recent professional-degree-holder migrants from Karnataka have done much better that those from Punjab. However, the experience of Punjabis in Britain has been very different. In terms of inter-generational mobility, the Punjabis and the Gujaratis have done better than some of the other communities from South Asia, such as Mirpuris or Bangladeshis.

Continuing with the theme of diversity, the paper on the United States highlights the internal class cleavages within the emigrant Indian population. While a small section of Indian professionals have done exceedingly well, a large majority of them have not. Similarly, while the economic integration of Indians has been generally successful, their cultural integration has not been so smooth.

In another paper, Harjot Oberoi shows how the Punjabis in Canada have been negotiating with their experience of migration. Using autobiographical literary texts, he presents two different ways of negotiating with modernity that the "diasporic" Punjabis have adopted—one that tries to integrate with the Western culture and the other that emphasises on the preservation of identity.

The diversity and richness of the papers makes the book a must read for anyone interested in studying the Indian diasporas.