IV: The Future of Indians in the Diaspora

diaspora4Though Indians lived under conditions of appalling poverty in many places of the world where they were first taken as indentured labor, a number of remarkable transformations were effected over two or three generations. Through sheer perseverance, labor, and thrift, and most significantly by a calculated withdrawal into their culture, in which they found forces of sustenance, these Indians successfully labored to give their children and grand-children better economic futures, and they in time came to capture the trade and commerce of their new homelands. This was just as true in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, as it was in Trinidad, Mauritius, and Burma. In Trinidad, though the minuscule population of whites continues today to control the banks and financial services, the Indians dominate in industry and entrepreneurial enterprises. If in Trinidad Indians appear to have done well for themselves within the economic domain, their affluence in such countries as the United States is even more pronounced, as is their presence within the professions. In the southern states, motels are synonymous with Patels, and one is tempted to see in the synchronization of the two words something more than mere coincidence. Taking the country as a whole, though their share of the population in the United States is less than 0.5%, Indians account for well over 5% of the scientists, engineers, and software specialists; and no group, not excepting whites, the Japanese, and Jewish people, has a higher per capita income than Indians.

All, however, is not well with Indians in the diaspora. In many countries, the resident Indian population has acquired something of a reputation for un-national activities, or just as frequently for exploiting the indigenous people, for having cornered the trade and business, and for being possessed of a greedy disposition. The calypsonian Lord Superior voiced these sentiments in Trinidad, when he urged Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams, on the eve of independence in 1958, to “tax them” Indians “mad”:

It have some old Indian people

Playing they like to beg

This time they got one million dollars

Tie between their leg

I am telling the Doctor

I am talking the facts

Is to chop loose the capra [cloth]

And haul out your income tax.

Similarly, wherever in Africa Indians were able to establish themselves, they became indispensable as the principal arteries of trade, shopkeepers to the nation, and so opened themselves to the charge that they had done so by illicit activities, by marginalizing the local population, and with no other thought than of enhancing their own interests and prosperity. These charges were, more often than not, preposterous and in any case could scarcely have justified the cruel and brutal treatment meted out to Indians in such places as Uganda, from where Idi Amin effected their wholesale and immediate removal, or Kenya, from where their eviction was only slightly less callous. In Uganda, where Indians had first been brought by the British to labor on railway lines, the charge that Indians were taking away from the black man his livelihood and not contributing to the national coffers either, was writ large on the political agenda of black nationalists.

Indians were sacrificed, in both countries, to black nationalist politics, to black elites, and to the internecine warfare between black political structures and parties. In South Africa, Indians were assumed to be akin to Jews, and were thus invested with those purported Jewish properties, such as being crafty, mendacious, and money-minded. Indians, like all other non-whites, were subject to the machinery of apartheid, but the dominant white regime sought to drive a wedge between Indians, coloreds, and blacks, and etch within the minds of Indians a notion of ineradicable ‘difference’ between themselves and the other unfortunate victims of apartheid. That this strategy was not without success was attested to by the first free elections in South Africa, where Indians, though they had fought alongside the blacks in the African National Congress to resist apartheid, deserted Nelson Mandela in the fear that an inevitable ‘Africanization’ under Mandela was bound to impoverish and disenfranchise them.

Thus the position of Indians overseas has always been precarious, and this problem was underlined soon after Burma attained its independence in 1948. Indians were prominent property owners, and significant in business and trading circles; their property was appropriated by the state, their possessions confiscated, and many Indians were exiled. When the Indian community appealed to Nehru for assistance, he took the position that this was a matter between them and the Burmese state, and India was unable to intervene in the internal affairs of a foreign state; moreover, Indians who had been settled overseas were to reconcile themselves to the fact that, having abjured Indian citizenship, they had no substantial claims on India. This has, in effect, been the position of successive Indian governments to this day, though as India acquires more muscle power, or certainly imagines itself (which it does frequently) to be a major player on the world scene, there is no gainsaying that the Indian government might not attempt to use its influence to protect the lives and interests of those who, though they may not be Indian citizens, are Indians in ancestry.

Where Indians have gone as laborers on short-term work permits, as is the case with Indian migration to the Middle East, the Indian government is duty bound to lodge, whenever necessary, protests over their ill-treatment, or to otherwise act to protect their lives and property. In the days subsequent to Kuwait’s invasion of Iraq in 1990, and before the beginning of the war between Iraq and the U.S. in 1991, the Indian government took upon itself the mammoth task of evacuating the greater part of the Middle East’s Indian population, and it did so at the request of a panic-stricken people who could claim their Indian citizenship as a passport to safety. That most of these Indians have returned to the Gulf is another story, but the question of what must be the relationship between overseas Indians, whether citizens of India or of another nation, and the Indian government is one that knows of no easy solution. The dissolution of a democratically-elected government, as in Fiji, for no other reason than that it was headed by an Indian, even in a country where they predominate, points to the fragile position of Indians, and the discriminatory and blatantly racist mechanisms deployed to keep them subjugated.

However tempting it might be for the Indian government to intervene to protect the interests of diasporic Indians who are foreign nationals, the brute fact remains that India can do little more than indicate its displeasure with the allegedly offending party. It is for Indians in the diaspora to forge links between themselves, to enter into coalitions with other minorities and marginalized people, and more significantly, to formulate for themselves a moral, sensitive, and democratic politics. Almost everywhere where Indians and blacks form part of the population, there is the perception that Indians are not merely apprehensive of blacks, but likely to observe a caste-like discrimination against them. One could go so far as to say that Indians have, in some places, shut blacks out of their moral vision, and invested them with an evil that properly belongs to political and social structures. In an illuminating incident that took place last year in Diamond Bar, in the vicinity of Los Angeles, the Indian community honored in a public reception the Los Angeles Police Department for its supposedly heroic efforts in capturing four black men who had been implicated in the rape of a young Indian girl. Though it was a matter of evident relief and unfailingly conducive to justice that the criminals were apprehended, the Indian community appears to have overlooked the widely-known fact that the Los Angeles Police Department has a notorious reputation world-wide for blatant racism, and that there was scarcely any need to commend the department when it was doing no more than performing its duty. Such insensitivity cannot endear the Indian community to other minorities who have all too frequently been the victims of racism and police brutality.

Racial politics is clearly not the preserve of one community. If Indians are prone to withdraw into their own culture, other communities are just as much swayed by racial considerations. What else was it but political subterfuge and racism in Trinidad, when the Speaker of the House, an Indian woman against whom certain charges had been laid, was unseated a few months ago? Taking opportunity of the absence of the President from the country, the acting President, acting at the behest of the People’s National Movement (PNM), the black party which had held power for most of the recent history of Trinidad, promulgated a state of emergency and placed Occah Seapual, the first Indian woman to ascend to position of such eminence, under house arrest. Eventually her removal as Speaker of the House was effected. No doubt it was unpalatable to the black male leadership that an Indian woman should have been in such a formidable position. Not surprisingly, Trinidad was revealed to be torn along racial lines: only 4% of the Indians thought that the declaration of the emergency and the removal of Seapual was constitutional and legal, while conversely the same percentage of blacks found anything wrong in the measures taken against her. During this imbroglio, the white elite, who constitute the real backbone of black nationalism, from which they have more to gain than they do from the ascendancy of Indians, were able to pretend neutrality, and look down upon the political struggle between their former subjects from a position of seeming ‘transcendence’. This supposed ‘transcendence’ has ever been the mainstay of colonialism, and Indians, blacks, and other communities must one day come to the recognition that their more substantive differences lie, not between themselves, but with the perpetrators of neo-colonialism, corporatism, and an European style of racialism.

The future of Indians in the diaspora, then, revolves upon two modalities of thought and action. First, diasporic Indians must, without necessarily offering their allegiance to the idea of the nation-state, attempt a coalition-style politics with other communities and groups of those who are not only marginalized, peripheral, and disenfranchised, but whose knowledge systems have, through the processes of colonialism and management, and with the aid of Enlightenment notions of science, rationality, and progress, been rendered powerless and superfluous. For instance, Indians must not, as they most regrettably do, consider the so-called demise of the black family in the U.S. (and elsewhere) as indicative of the moral degradation of black people, and smugly contrast this with the loving adherence to family life said to be ingrained in all Indians. The retreat into the family home, the concerted refusal to engage with a wider notion of the ‘public’, and the mindless replication of ‘timeless’ traditions have been among the more distressing characteristics of Indian existence abroad, particularly in the affluent West. We cannot but fail to recognize, when we consider the story of Indian indentured labor, that in the mockery of black people, or in the constant humiliation of Hispanics in the U.S., there is also the humiliation of Indians and all those who have been victimized by dominant categories of knowledge as much as by brute force.

Secondly, diasporic Indians cannot reasonably look to the Indian government for succor and assistance, and whatever the strength of the emotional and cultural ties between them and the ‘motherland’, their center of being lies elsewhere. That question, ‘what can India do for people of Indian ancestry abroad’, begs to be effaced. However much comfort there may be in thinking of identity as given, bound within purportedly natural categories, or in supposing that identity can always be recovered and revived, there is a greater courage, which diasporic Indians have seldom displayed, in reconstituting identity along lines of political and cultural choices, and in defiance of received categories of knowledge. Perhaps, in this endeavor, placed as many diasporic Indians are in an in-between space, they may yet be in the position of trying to give society a new, at least slightly more human, face.