The Indian diaspora today constitutes an important,
and in some respects unique, force in world culture. The origins of the
modern Indian diaspora lie mainly in the subjugation of India by the British
and its incorporation into the British empire. Indians were taken over
as indentured labor to far-flung parts of the empire in the nineteenth-century,
a circumstance to which the modern Indian populations of Fiji, Mauritius,
Guyana, Trinidad, Surinam, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and other
places attest in their own peculiar ways. Over two million Indian men
fought on behalf of the empire in numerous wars, including the Boer War
and the two World Wars, and some remained behind to claim the land on
which they had fought as their own. As if in emulation of their ancestors,
many Gujarati traders once again left for East Africa in large numbers
in the early part of the twentieth century. Finally, in the post-World
War II period, the dispersal of Indian labor and professionals has been
a nearly world-wide phenomenon. Indians, and other South Asians, provided
the labor that helped in the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, particularly
the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and in more recent years unskilled
labor from South Asia has been the main force in the transformation of
the physical landscape of much of the Middle East. Meanwhile, in countries
such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, Indians have made their
presence visibly felt in the professions.
Who and what
is an Indian? How we are to characterize the Indian diasporic community
as 'Indian' given that it is constituted of such diverse elements as South
Asian Hong Kong Muslims, Canadian Sikhs (or shall we say Sikh Canadians?),
Punjabi Mexican Californians, Gujarati East Africans now settled in the
U.S. by way of England, South African Hindus, and so forth? In the United
States, at least, the Indian community has occupied a place of considerable
privilege, and many Indians could deflect the moment of recognition that
'Indianness' and being 'American' do not always happily coincide. In recent
years, with a declining economy on the one hand, and the congregation
of Indians in clusters that visibly put them apart on the other hand,
Indians have for the first time become the targets of racial attacks.
The Indian woman in her 'native dress', with the vermillion dot on her
forehead, is easily seen as an embodiment of sheer otherness, and so she
has been perceived by the so-called "dot-busters", a gang of
white teenagers operating in New Jersey who have already been responsible
for several violent crimes against Indians. In North America and the U.K.,
the native Indian costume has come up for public scrutiny and discussion
in an altogether different respect: Sikhs have insisted that they be exempt
from the law that compels bicyclists and motorcyclists to wear helmets,
for such helmets cannot be worn over turbans, and their religious faith
requires Sikhs to wear turbans. The kirpan has been an issue of contention
in California schools. The 'corner shop', a hallowed symbol (if we could
recall our Dickens) of English life, is now mainly in the hands of Indians.
The obvious question is not only, 'What do the English think of that',
but also: 'If the English landscape has been so altered, what is English
about England'? The diaspora, in short, affects the center as well.
Indian communities across the world might be, they all maintain some sort
of tenuous link with the motherland. The most likely candidate for a force
of bonding would be, of all things, the Hindi feature film, a phenomenon
unique to the Indian diaspora: what Hollywood is to Western Europe, the
Bombay Hollywood ("Bollywood") is to the Middle East and East
Africa. The modesty, not to mention puritanism, of the the Hindi film
is said to explain its appeal to the Islamic world; and though we may
well contest that interpretation, it is worthy of note that Hindi films
found in grocery and video stores across the U.S. often carry subtitles
in Arabic, one language which is indubitably not spoken by any Indian
community in the U.S.! The Indian 'arranged marriage' might furnish another
such facet of a 'common culture'. Newspapers published by Indian communities
flourish everywhere, and they invariably carry a section with matrimonial
ads. Though these very ads help Indians to 'locate' one another, they
pose difficult questions about 'otherness', both the otherness' of Indians
in relation to 'Americans', and the internal 'otherness' of certain Indians
in relation to other Indians.
practices of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims in the U.S. and other overseas
communities might be assisting in transforming the nature of religious
faiths in India itself. Hindus all over the world are showing alarming
signs of susceptibility to a resurgent and militant Hinduism; indeed,
it is even arguable that they seem to know the meaning of Hinduism better
than do Hindus in the 'motherland'. Why do overseas Hindus, particularly
in the North American diaspora, appear always to out-Hindu the Hindu?
In thinking of the Indian diaspora, other questions that come to the fore
include: relations between parents and children; race relations between
Indians, blacks, and whites; the place of Indian food and music in the
preservation of Indian communities; the responsibility, if any, of the
Indian Government to overseas Indians; and the future prospects of the
Indian community in the U.S.
Articles (The HINDU)
Reflections on the Indian Diaspora.
Freedom in Chains.
At Home in Trinidad.
The Future of the Indians in the Diaspora.