. 1
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Global South Asians

By the end of the twentieth century some nine million people of South
Asian descent had left India, Bangladesh or Pakistan and settled in
different parts of the world, forming a diverse and signi¬cant modern
diaspora. In the early nineteenth century, many left reluctantly to seek
economic opportunities which were lacking at home. In later decades
others left freely in anticipation of better lives and work. This is the story
of their often painful experiences in the diaspora, how they constructed
new social communities overseas and how they maintained connections
with the countries and the families they had left behind. It is a story
compellingly told by one of the premier historians of modern South Asia,
Judith Brown, whose particular knowledge of the diaspora in Britain and
South Africa gives her insight as a commentator. This is a book which
will have a broad appeal to general readers as well as to students of South
Asian and colonial history, migration studies and sociology.

 µ ¤ ©    .  · ® is Beit Professor of Commonwealth History,
University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of Balliol College. Her
recent publications include Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1989), and Nehru:
A Political Life (2003).
New Approaches to Asian History

This dynamic new series will publish books on the milestones in Asian history,
those that have come to de¬ne particular periods or mark turning-points in the
political, cultural and social evolution of the region. Books are intended as intro-
ductions for students to be used in the classroom. They are written by scholars,
whose credentials are well established in their particular ¬elds and who have, in
many cases, taught the subject across a number of years.
Global South Asians
Introducing the Modern Diaspora

Judith M. Brown
Beit Professor of Commonwealth History,
University of Oxford
cambridge university press
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge cb2 2ru, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521844567

© Judith M. Brown 2006

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 2006

978-0-511-24520-6 eBook (EBL)
isbn-10 0-511-24520-3 eBook (EBL)

978-0-521-84456-7 hardback
0-521-84456-8 hardback

0-521-60630-6 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of urls
for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

List of illustrations page vi
Acknowledgments vii
Glossary ix
Maps x

Introduction 1
1 Traditions of stability and movement 9
2 Making a modern diaspora 29
3 Creating new homes and communities 59
4 Relating to the new homeland 112
5 Relating to the old homeland 149
Conclusion 171

Bibliography 181
Index 193


1. A former indentured labourer in Fiji and his wife,
c. 1960
Courtesy of Professor B. V Lal
. 64
2. Indian workers on sugar plantations in Fiji, c. 1960
Courtesy of Professor B. V Lal
. 65
3. South Asian ˜corner shop™: Oxford
Author™s photograph 70
4. South Asian shops in the ethnic enclave of Southall, West
Courtesy of Peter J. Diggle 79
5. Methodist church, Cowley Road, Oxford, used by
Punjabi-speaking congregation
Author™s photograph 96
6. Preparing for ¬re-walking in Pietermaritzburg, Natal
Courtesy of Dr A. Diesel 99
7. Devotee ready for ¬re-walking ceremony,
Pietermaritzburg, Natal
Courtesy of Dr A. Diesel 100
8. Building places of worship: Glen Cove Gurudwara, NY
Courtesy of Rekha Inc. 104
9. Building places of worship: Sri Venkateswara Temple,
Penn Hills, PA 15235
Courtesy of Rekha Inc. 105
10. Building places of worship: new mosque, Cowley Road,
Author™s photograph 106


My ¬rst debt of gratitude incurred in this study of the South Asian dias-
pora is to those members of the diaspora who have knowingly, and some-
times unwittingly, contributed to my knowledge of their experience. I
hope I may have repaid that debt in some small way if some of my read-
ers are enabled to understand the diversity of the diaspora and the myriad
issues with which its peoples have grappled for over a century and a half.
Marigold Acland, Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, ¬rst suggested that I might write this book, and encouraged
me to engage formally with a topic which had interested me for decades,
not just because of my work on South Asia itself, but because I used
to teach at Manchester University which is located in an area of high
South Asian settlement, and where some of the issues discussed here
were a daily and present reality. To her and to Isabelle Dambricourt at
Cambridge University Press I offer my thanks for all their help in the
production of this volume. Several colleagues in Oxford have been gen-
erous in their time and advice, particularly Professors Steven Vertovec
and Ceri Peach, and Professor Ian Talbot, now of Southampton Univer-
sity, who spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at Balliol College and engaged
in many discussions with me on the diaspora as well as latterly reading
the complete manuscript and making valuable suggestions. Nigel James
of the Bodleian Library™s map room was of invaluable help in the creation
of maps. Stephanie Jenkins in the History Faculty was, as always, a fund
of expertise and help in the process of producing a manuscript. From
further a¬eld I would like to thank publicly Professor Brij Lal, of the
Australian National University of Canberra, who generously permitted
me to use photos of his grandparents and of Indians engaged in sugar
cultivation in Fiji, and whose own work helped to open my eyes to the
reality of the indenture experience; and Dr Alleyn Diesel, who once took
me on a tour of Hindu temples in Pietermaritzburg and has allowed me to
use some of her exceptional photographs in this book. In the USA Rekha
Inc. found for me two important photographs and gave me permission
to use them here. Professor Renee C. Fox, Annenberg Professor Emerita

viii Acknowledgments

of the Social Sciences at Pennsylvania University, and former visiting
Eastman Professor at Balliol, most generously read my manuscript from
the perspective of an American readership and from within a discipline
other than my own, and I offer her my thanks for her encouragement in
this project, as in so much else.
Finally my thanks, as always, go to my husband, Peter Diggle. He read
the manuscript to ensure its accessibility and clarity, and helped me with
photographic expeditions. But far beyond any speci¬c assistance with this
particular book, his constant support, ¬delity and love make possible my
academic work and my own global journeys.

bhangra form of Punjabi music
dukawalla Indian trader in East Africa
fatwa formal opinion on a point of Islamic law by a
recognised Muslim authority
Gurudwara Sikh place of worship
halal meat butchered according to Islamic rules
hijab headscarf worn by Muslim women
Hindutva ˜Hinduness™
Imam leader of prayers at a mosque
jati caste; often quite localised endogamous group cf.
Jihad Holy war (Muslim)
kangani form of contract for labour in South East Asia
Kashmiriyat the Kashmiri way of life
kosher food acceptable to orthodox Jews
lascar Indian sailor
madrassah Muslim secondary school or college
Mandir Hindu temple
pashmina ¬ne shawl
Pir Su¬ (Muslim) spiritual guide
puja act of worship (Hindu)
purdah forms of female seclusion or the wearing of a veil
raj rule; thus the British raj in India
salwar kameez Punjabi female dress of tunic and loose trousers
sirdar Indian plantation overseer in context of indentured
varna caste; one of the classical fourfold divisions of Hindu
yagna originally a central Hindu rite of sacri¬ce in the
Vedas; speci¬cally in Trinidad it means a variety of
large-scale, socio-religious observances



of Ated Pr
gra ovin
& O ces


Map 1. India pre-1947, showing major areas from which emigrants
went into the diaspora before independence and partition of the

Maps xi


Pun Jullundur






Map 2. South Asian subcontinent post-1971, showing major areas from
which emigrants went into the diaspora



East S.E. Asia

Mauritius Fiji

Unfree/contract labour
Free migration
Flows of free and unfree labour to the same destination

Map 3. Flows of migrants from India before 1947
Canada Netherlands

South Asia

Surinam Lanka


First time migrations
Flows of "twice-migrants", i.e. flows of onward migration
from places of initial immigration and settlement

Map 4. Flows of South Asian migrants after 1947
xiv Maps





Map 5. Major locations of South Asian settlement in the UK (late twen-
tieth century)
Map 6. US states with the highest concentrations of South Asian settlement (late twentieth century)

Men and women have been on the move since the earliest beginnings
of human societies. Migration in small and large groups, and the estab-
lishment of new homes, have been among the strongest creative forces
in the peopling and settling of the world™s land mass and the making of
human history. However, in the last two and a half centuries, far larger
movements of population have occurred than ever before, changing the
face of many local societies and of the planet itself. Among the most
dramatic of these relatively modern ¬‚ows of people have been those who
travelled as slaves from Africa across the Atlantic, the Chinese who jour-
neyed overseas as labourers and traders, the Europeans who migrated to
northern America and to temperate climates in southern Africa, Australia
and New Zealand, and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent who have
spread out around the world in signi¬cant numbers. Such major ¬‚ows
of people have been propelled by demographic pressures, the forces of
economics, and politics. Some have left home of their own free choice,
whereas others have been compelled, whether formally or not. Some have
been lured by hope, others driven by fear. For all of them, the technol-
ogy of swifter travel has been a critical factor, as metalled roads and
the internal combustion engine superseded human and equine feet as
the fastest mode of travel on land, and as the sailing ship gave way to the
steam ship in the nineteenth century, and eventually to mass air travel
in the twentieth, to enable movement between continents and across
The focus of this book is the overseas migratory experience of the peo-
ples of the Indian subcontinent, or South Asians. The political map of
their region of origin changed radically in the mid-twentieth century. In
1947 the British withdrew from their imperial rule of two hundred years,
leaving a partitioned subcontinent and two independent nation states,
India and Pakistan, followed swiftly by an independent Ceylon, later
known as Sri Lanka. Pakistan was composed of widely separated western
and eastern wings, and the eastern wing split away to form Bangladesh in
1971. To accommodate these changes the whole area is most conveniently

2 Global South Asians

referred to as South Asia, and its peoples as South Asians, except where
the people of the particular countries of the subcontinent are referred to.
Out-migration from South Asia was not the largest of modern migratory
movements. By the last decades of the twentieth century, somewhere over
9 million people of South Asian descent lived outside the subcontinent,
outnumbered by those of African, Chinese, European and Jewish descent
who lived outside their homelands.1 However, they had become widely
spread “ in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, North
America and the Paci¬c. Not surprisingly, given geographical proxim-
ity, other parts of Asia had the largest number of migrant South Asians.
Malaysia had the largest South Asian population (nearly 1.2 million)
but this was well under 10 per cent of the total population. However in
some other places, though they were fewer in number, they now formed
a very signi¬cant part of the local population. In Trinidad, for exam-
ple, though their numbers were relatively small (just over 400,000) they
made up about 40 per cent of the population, similar to the percentage
of the population of African descent. In Fiji they had come to outnumber
the indigenous Fijian inhabitants with a population of over 800,000. In
the United Kingdom, the South Asian population was larger than that in
any other European country, and indeed of any other country in the world
except Malaysia. In 1991, according to the last UK census of the century,
and the ¬rst which counted ethnic minorities, the minority population
was just over 3 million (5.5 per cent of the total), and of these almost
half were of South Asian origin. Of the South Asians the majority were
Indians, followed by a much smaller group of Pakistanis, and by a yet
smaller group of people whose origins lay in Bangladesh. A decade later
the actual numbers of all three groups had risen considerably, though
Indians still outnumbered Pakistanis and Bangladeshis grouped together
and were the largest single ethnic minority in the UK. The three South
Asian groups together accounted for 3.6 per cent of the total population
and 45 per cent of the ethnic minority population.2

1 C. Clarke, C. Peach and S. Vertovec (eds.), South Asians Overseas. Migration and Ethnicity
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 1.
2 The actual numbers in the UK in 1991 were Indians (840,255), Pakistanis (476,555),
and Bangladeshis (162,835). By 2001 the actual numbers were Indians (1,053,411),
Pakistanis (747,285), and Bangladeshis (283,063). The 2001 ¬gures are available on the
internet at National Statistics Online “ Population Size. The Censuses for 1991 and 2001
are published by the Of¬ce for National Statistics, UK.
For worldwide numbers in 1987 see Clarke, Peach and Vertovec (eds.), South Asians
Overseas, p. 2. A further source to be found on the internet is the CIA World Fact Book.
Although ethnic minorities are not always given in the same way for each country, it is
useful because it is regularly updated. Patterns of overseas settlement and the reasons for
these will be discussed in detail in subsequent chapters.
Introduction 3

The absolute size as well as the distribution and concentration of peo-
ple of South Asian descent outside the subcontinent makes their migra-
tory experience of considerable interest and importance. South Asians
have made a signi¬cant and distinctive contribution to the economies,
societies and cultures of the places to which they have gone, whether as
semi-free labourers on contracts of indenture on plantations in Natal, the
Caribbean and Malaya; as traders and entrepreneurs in East Africa; as
semi-skilled industrial labour in Europe; or as high-¬‚ying professionals
in electronics and computing in the USA. Moreover, they have increas-
ingly in¬‚uenced the politics, economies and cultures of the places which
they and their ancestors left, as they have gained in wealth and political
articulation, and used modern technologies of travel and communica-
tion to fashion many kinds of close links with their former homelands.
(This is particularly the theme of Chapter 5.) More broadly, this modern
experience of migration is part of a far longer history of the interconnec-
tions between South Asia and a wider world. Movement and migration
was no new experience in India by the start of the nineteenth century, as
Chapter 1 shows. But it was rapidly and dramatically transformed by new
modes of travel, within the political context of imperialism and decoloni-
sation, and the economic environment created by the industrialisation
of the western world. As the South Asian migrants™ individual experi-
ences showed, they were increasingly, if often unwittingly, players in a
global world, moved by global forces which reached down to the villages
from which they came. It was not until late in the twentieth century that
commentators began to use the phrase ˜globalisation™ to describe and
help to explain some of the transformations of the modern world and
its growing interconnectedness. Increasingly ¬‚ows of goods, investment,
¬nance, services, people and ideas link the world together, compressing
older ideas of space and separation, fashioning new types of economies,
polities and societies. Among these ¬‚ows, different types of movements
of people are of great importance. South Asians overseas re¬‚ect many of
these different types, from unskilled labourers to highly quali¬ed profes-
sionals, from small-time peddlers and shopkeepers to multi-millionaire
owners of modern industries. Their experience illuminates a key part of
recent world history and deserves close attention.
But should we call this out¬‚ow of peoples from South Asia a diaspora?
The word came into English usage in the late nineteenth century, as a
borrowing from a Greek word (diaspora), which meant to ˜disperse™
or literally to ˜sow over™, and was used to describe the scattered Greek
communities of the ancient Mediterranean world. This was originally a
neutral word merely indicating geographical dispersion, but in English it
soon took on sinister and catastrophic overtones of forced expulsion of an
4 Global South Asians

ethnic and religious minority from its homeland, of persecution and exile.
The Jews were the classic example. But in the later twentieth century, as
scholars became interested both in older and newer forms of forced and
free migration, the word acquired a far looser meaning, describing almost
any group of migrants permanently settled outside their place of origin.
Not surprisingly, there has been much scholarly literature on how the
word diaspora should or should not be used.3 For the purposes of this
book I shall use it to denote groups of people with a common ethnicity;
who have left their original homeland for prolonged periods of time and
often permanently; who retain a particular sense of cultural identity and
often close kinship links with other scattered members of their group,
thus acknowledging their shared physical and cultural origins; and who
maintain links with that homeland and a sense of its role in their present
identity. This avoids any essential notion of compulsion and victimisa-
tion, (though compulsion may have been present in some cases), recog-
nises the many reasons and contexts for migration, and emphasises the
transnational nature of diasporic groups. It is also analytically useful as
it points to different aspects of such migrants™ lives and helps us con-
ceptualise their experience, in particular social forms, connections and
relationships, senses of place and self, and the ongoing processes of evolv-
ing culture in new contexts.4 However, if this exploration of diaspora
gives us a tool for understanding the experience of the millions of South
Asians abroad, is it appropriate to speak of one South Asian diaspora?
As subsequent chapters will show, South Asian migration involved great
diversity “ different kinds of people in socio-economic terms moving at
different times for different reasons; people of different religions, re¬‚ect-
ing religious diversity on the subcontinent, including Hindus, Muslims,
Sikhs, Parsis and Christians; people from different regions and linguistic
backgrounds; and latterly people from different nation states. So great is
the diversity of origins, characteristics and experiences, that it is most real-
istic to see South Asians abroad as members of different diasporic strands,
or even as different diaspora groups originating on the one subcontinent,
who have created many transnational communities which share a sense
of origin in that region of the world.

3 See the series on global diasporas edited by Robin Cohen, in particular his introductory
volume, Global Diasporas. An Introduction (London and Washington, University College
London Press and University of Washington Press, 1997); and the discussion in N. Van
Hear, New Diasporas. The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities
(London and Seattle, University College London Press and University of Washington
Press, 1998).
4 See a particularly helpful discussion on the Hindu diaspora by S. Vertovec in his The
Hindu Diaspora. Comparative Patterns (London, Routledge, 2000), particularly chapter 7,
˜Three meanings of ˜diaspora™™, pp. 141“159.
Introduction 5

There are many sources available for students of the South Asian dias-
pora and its peoples, particularly in the different countries to which they
have moved. Among these are government documents which chart the
movement of peoples and policies toward such movements, as in the
case of Indian indentured labourers in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, or the immigration policies of the countries of the developed
world in the twentieth century. For most receiving countries there are
decennial census reports which to an extent document the presence of
ethnic minorities, though these vary in their usefulness, depending on
whether and what sort of questions about ethnicity, religion and place
of birth are asked. Where ethnic minorities are perceived to be in some
senses problematic there may well also be of¬cial enquiries and reports
on minority experience in housing, employment, health and education,
and press coverage of particular issues and events. The voices of peo-
ple in the diaspora are most often heard in situations where they are
educated, articulate and participate in public debate. Where migrants
were illiterate, particularly among the earliest unskilled labour migrants,
evidence of their own understanding of their lives may well come less
directly, through the processes of oral history mediated by professional
historians anxious to capture the past, or through newspaper reports
or records of court cases dealing with instances of trauma and law
Literature is yet another way of listening to the experiences of migrant
South Asians, and there is a growing body of work by authors of South
Asian descent, writing in English outside the subcontinent, which pro-
vides entry into the world of diasporic South Asians. For the Indian expe-
rience in the Caribbean there is the writing of V. S. Naipaul, for example.
Born in 1932 in a small town in Trinidad, his writings have explored the
experience of being in some senses an outsider in the different places he
might have thought of as ˜home™ “ Trinidad, Britain and India. His most
famous novel of Indian life in the Caribbean, A House for Mr Biswas,
was published in 1961, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in
2001. David Dabydeen, born in 1955 in Guyana, has explored through
¬ction the life of the early Indian labourers there, as in his 1996 novel,

5 See, for example, the collection of memories edited by Brij V. Lal in Bittersweet the Indo-
Fijian Experience (Canberra, Australian National University, Pandanus Books, 2004).
For the way individuals™ experiences can be used by historians to recreate the experience
of indentured labourers, see Brij V. Lal, ˜Kunti™s cry™, and J. Harvey, ˜Naraini™s story™,
chapters 11 and 18 of Brij V. Lal (ed.), Chalo Jahaji on a Journey Through Indenture in Fiji
(Canberra and Suva, Australian National University and Fiji Museum, 2000). See also
the fascinating attempt to ˜hear™ women™s voices from Mauritius: M. Carter, Lakshmi™s
Legacy. The Testimonies of Indian Women in 19th Century Mauritius (Stanley, Rose-Hill,
Mauritius, Editions de L™Ocean Indien, 1994).
6 Global South Asians

The Counting House. Moving on into the twenty-¬rst century in Britain,
Monica Ali invites readers of her Brick Lane (2004) to empathise with
the challenges of a young Bangladeshi bride brought to East London,
coping with a dif¬cult older husband, rearing a family and grasping the
opportunity of a cosmopolitan society she gradually and painfully comes
to understand. The growing genre of ¬lms dealing with life in the dias-
pora is also a serious source, even when many of them are also excellent
entertainment. Bend it like Beckham (2002), about a Punjabi girl in Eng-
land desperate to play football, is both hilarious and instructive to the
sensitive observer. Even more immediate than autobiographical and ¬c-
tional literature or ¬lm is the vibrant world of the South Asian diaspora
to be found on the internet, where a range of sites devoted to news,
lifestyles, job opportunities and marriage arrangements, provide insight
into the issues thought to be critical or troubling to younger South Asians,
and brings them together across national boundaries to re¬‚ect on what
it means to be Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Muslim, Hindu and so forth in
a cosmopolitan and fast-changing world. It is not surprising that dias-
pora religious organisations have also made increasing use of the internet
to connect with their followers, and to present themselves to the wider
society. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh organisational websites are important
sources, but ones which have to be used with care and some knowledge
of which group or sect is behind them.
Such unconventional sources bring alive the evidence and analysis
of the South Asian diasporic experience provided in the growing aca-
demic literature on South Asians outside the subcontinent. This comes
from a great variety of intellectual disciplines, ranging from anthropol-
ogy, sociology, human geography and history, while some contribute to
new sub-disciplines speci¬cally studying diasporas, migration, issues of
hybrid identity and culture, or the growth of transnational families and
communities.6 Much of the academic work on the diaspora has taken the
form of case studies of particular groups at a speci¬c point in time, or
of particular localities with high densities of migrant groups. Others are
collections of essays which re¬‚ect on a particular theme in the diasporic
experience, such as religion, work or kinship. Many of these will be cited
during this book and listed in the select bibliography. It is partly because
of the growing weight of case study literature on South Asians overseas
that this present book is written. It is therefore worth brie¬‚y indicating
its intentions. It is written for several different kinds of readers who want
6 A convenient introduction to the theoretical debates on diasporas in general and their
study, particularly within disciplines in¬‚uenced by post-modernism, is to be found in
J. E. Braziel and A. Mannur (eds.), Theorizing Diaspora. A Reader (Oxford, Blackwell
Publishing, 2003).
Introduction 7

an introduction to a complex but important topic which is of contem-
porary as well as historical interest, but with a particular slant towards
students who want to progress from this to more advanced study of South
Asians in the diaspora or other largescale movements of people. It can-
not, in a relatively small compass, provide detailed coverage of the varied
experiences of the many different strands in the South Asian diaspora.
Moreover, primary evidence and secondary literature on the different
diasporic strands is also very uneven and inhibits anything approaching
total coverage. Understandably the evidence is most plentiful about areas
and groups where there has been much of¬cial enquiry and collection of
statistics about the arrival and growth of diasporic groups and their lives,
by governments which have both motivation and the administrative abil-
ity to collect such material, as well as academic study by fellow citizens
seeking to understand the dynamics of signi¬cant aspects of their own
societies. Evidence from Britain therefore ¬gures large in this work and it
is clear that there are areas such as South East Asia where there is much
work still to be done on the nature and experience of the South Asian
communities there. However, the British case does also have particular
signi¬cance because through it we can see the emergence of very varied
diasporic strands in one country of destination, and track generational
change over a lengthy period of settlement. The British experience is also
one where the South Asian population is very signi¬cant in size and pro-
portion of the total population, particularly in certain urban areas; and
this offers evidence about interactions of signi¬cant minorities with the
host society and political structure.
This volume seeks to offer a broad analytical way into the subject,
¬rst by sketching and contextualising the main ¬‚ows of peoples out of
the subcontinent since the early nineteenth century (the substance of
Chapter 2), and then by focussing on the tasks which have to be done by
each group of migrants and each generation of diasporic people. These
˜tasks™ are vital for establishing new homes and communities and taking
advantage of new opportunities, for negotiating the way through the chal-
lenges of living in a different society and culture, and for retaining what
are seen as essential links with kin and wider groups which share cultural
norms, both in their new home and in the place from which they have
come. They are discussed under the broad thematic headings of ˜creat-
ing new homes and communities™, ˜relating to the new homeland™ and
˜relating to the old homeland™, which are the titles of Chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Another distinctive feature of this study is that it is written by a historian
with a special interest in South Asia. My intention is to put ˜South Asia™
back into the story of migration, ¬rstly by looking at the subcontinent
from which migrants came, with its changing economy and society, and
8 Global South Asians

the traditions and experience of mobility which contributed to the larger
overseas ¬‚ows of population in recent times (see Chapter 1). Secondly,
South Asia, which is itself not a static given but rapidly changing in the
twentieth century, is seen as a constant backdrop or presence in the lives
of the peoples of the diaspora, as a region which provides many aspects of
their senses of identity and meaning, one to which they return for short
visits with increasing frequency, one where they have kin and friends,
where they invest goods and money, and one in whose politics they are
often interested. South Asians abroad cannot be understood just as local
˜ethnic minorities™ in the countries to which they go, as so often they are
compartmentalised for policy makers and journalists. They are involved
in a dense network of local and global connections which make them
truly transnational people, at home in several places and responding to
opportunities and challenges both local and global, and keenly aware of
the emerging role of South Asia in a changing world environment.
1 Traditions of stability and movement

This chapter sets the scene for the rest of this study, by looking at the
subcontinent of South Asia and its connections with the world outside,
over time. Although individuals and family groups made the decision to
move abroad, and we need to understand their small-scale and local deci-
sions, these were taken in the context of a widening environment, that
of the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
and of a world of independent nations bound together by new patterns
of globalisation in the later twentieth and the present centuries. Partic-
ularly crucial in this widening environment was the impact of demand
for various forms of labour and skill, and the political issues related to
immigration of people with different ethnic origins from the majority in
areas where they sought to go.

1 The subcontinent under British rule: the image
of rural stability
The great land mass of the Indian subcontinent, equivalent to Europe
in size, came under the political control of Britain in piecemeal fashion
from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century.
In theory, the ruling authority was until 1858 the East India Company
(EIC), a trading company whose origins lay in a royal charter of 1600.
But as it transformed itself in the early 1800s into an organisation for
governance and military control, its trading activities declined as a com-
ponent of its activities and pro¬t. This was with the exception of opium,
which alone constituted nearly half of the country™s exports, shipped east
to China and South East Asia. The EIC was ¬nally wound up after the
rebellions in northern India of 1857, and, as formal imperial rule was
vested in the British government, India became the largest country in the
British Empire. During the ¬nal ¬fty years of its existence the EIC had
struggled with the problems of extending political and military control
over such a vast area while still attempting to make a pro¬t. It constructed
a structure of civil administration over those areas it controlled directly,

10 Global South Asians

and where it seemed prudent it used a pragmatic system of ˜indirect
rule™, keeping in place indigenous rulers who could be trusted as sub-
sidiary allies to keep their areas peaceful and loyal. Even in the areas of
its direct political rule it relied heavily on the many Indians who worked
within its civil governmental structures, served in its huge army, and paid
the taxes it levied. Increasingly, the British parliament and government
found mechanisms for surveillance and control of the EIC™s activities,
so there was no radical change in practice when India came under the
sovereignty of the British crown.1
The society over which the British came to rule was complex. By far the
majority of Indians were to be found in the countryside, dependent upon
agriculture. But there were signi¬cant differences according to region, in
language, culture and the nature of the local economy and social order.
In general there were some common patterns in rural society “ the impor-
tance of the joint farming family, dependence on kinship networks and vil-
lage communities, marriage with carefully de¬ned hierarchical networks,
and the comparatively low status of women compared with men. Across
India as a whole there were signi¬cantly different religious traditions. The
majority were Hindus, but there was a large minority of Muslims (mostly
to be found in the north and west), a small group of Sikhs (clustered in the
north-western region of Punjab), communities of Christians in southern
India, whose origins lay almost at the start of the Christian era, and Par-
sis along the western coast, whose ancestors had ¬‚ed from persecution in
Persia. Such traditions had more implications than creating shared pat-
terns of belief and worship. They created the boundaries beyond which
marriages and close social interaction did not normally occur, and inter-
nally they could fashion hierarchies of status. This was particularly so
in the case of Hindus, amongst whom the complex hierarchical patterns
of caste society had emerged, built on ritual position re¬‚ecting Hindu
ideas of purity and pollution, and socio-economic status, which in turn
determined the nature of intra-Hindu social interactions and particularly
of marriage networks.2

1 On the extension of East India Company control over India see P. J. Marshall, The
New Cambridge History of India II.2. Bengal: The British Bridgehead. Eastern India 1740“
1828 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997), and C. A. Bayly, The New Cam-
bridge History of India II.1. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cam-
bridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988). P. J. Marshall also examines the extension
of metropolitan British control over the company in Problems of Empire: Britain and India
1757“1813 (London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1968).
2 The nature of caste and how it changed over time, and the difference between varna
(a pan-Indian notion of ritual hierarchy) and jati (locally ranked endogamous groups), is
the subject of considerable historical debate. Modern scholarship has shown how caste,
in either of these meanings, was not immutable. Change occurred over time in people™s
Traditions of stability and movement 11

The British differed among themselves in their understanding of this
society, and in what they felt they could or should be attempting to do in
and with it. Some believed it was their duty and destiny to attempt radical
change, either by converting Indians to Christianity, or by modernising
India through the processes of good government, law and modern edu-
cation. Others believed that they should respect ˜Oriental™ traditions and
practices, and work within the assumptions and ideals of Indian soci-
ety. In practice the early years of EIC rule served to make India more
˜traditional™, less able to change and respond to its new connections with a
wider economic and ideological world. Most particularly, British concern
to sustain Hindu law led to the formal elaboration and solidi¬cation of
hierarchical society, as the new rulers took advice from the local Hindu
˜authorities™ on the nature of Hindu society, who were themselves at the
apex of the caste system. As rulers anxious to maintain order and to col-
lect taxation from those who owned or controlled land and its products,
the British pressed Indian society into greater physical immobility, hoping
to found their rule securely on a settled peasantry, by settling (and this
is a telling word) the land revenue on farming groups in return for rights
in land, and goading once nomadic rural groups into a settled lifestyle. A
more homogeneous, ¬‚attened peasant society was coming into being, a
trend strengthened by a long-term economic depression from the 1820s
which dampened economic opportunity. At the same time population
growth meant that there was less chance for personal physical movement
into new agricultural land.3
It is not surprising that later British commentators considered India™s
society to be essentially static, and its people to be immobile, though
historians can now see how far the new rulers were themselves responsi-
ble for creating barriers to movement. Part of the later British image of
Indians was of people who were deeply averse to moving from their natal
district, away from the securities of the village and kin group. William
Crooke, a retired civil servant, writing at the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury on the North-Western Provinces (later known as United Provinces,
and source of many indentured labourers) wrote eloquently of the ˜fact™
that ˜the Hindu has little of the migratory instinct, and all his prejudices
tend to keep him at home™. Security in one™s home village, known caste

understanding of caste, as did the position of groups in the context of local areas with
changing socio-economic opportunities. An excellent discussion is to be found in S.
Bayly, The New Cambridge History Of India IV.3. Caste, Society and Politics in India from
the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999).
3 On the trend towards a more traditional and settled society, see C. Bayly, Indian Society
and the Making of the British Empire, chapter 5; and D. Washbrook, ˜India, 1818“1860: the
two faces of colonialism™, chapter 18 of A. Porter (ed.). The Oxford History of the British
Empire. Volume III. The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999).
12 Global South Asians

standing, and the support of kinsfolk and neighbours, as well as the ser-
vices of a family priest and the comfort of knowing he would be able to
arrange his children™s marriages in a familiar environment, all appeared
to conspire to prevent him from leaving home.4 Even at the beginning of
the twentieth century those who compiled the decennial Census reports
wrote in the same vein. In the 1911 Census, the caste system and depen-
dence on agriculture were said to ˜account for the reluctance of the native
of India to leave his ancestral home™. In 1921, J. T. Marten of the Indian
Civil Service wrote of ˜the home-loving character of the Indian people,
which is the result of economic and social causes, and of the immobility
of an agricultural population rooted to the ground, fenced in by caste,
language and social customs and ¬lled with an innate dread of change of
any kind™.5
However, there was evidence of considerable mobility within India
and abroad well before the nineteenth century, and the subcontinent
clearly had traditions of movement as well as stability. Within India there
were well-established patterns of trade sustained by indigenous credit
networks, which took merchant groups long distances, by water along
the coasts of the country or down the great riverine routes inland, and
by land along established caravan routes. Considerably less af¬‚uent than
the established merchant communities of India were those whose very
life was nomadic “ horse breeders and traders, elephant catchers, cattle
herders, and rural folk willing to travel miles for agricultural work, as
well as religious mendicants who secured a livelihood from the charity of
the Hindu faithful. Many of these wandering people were, of course, the
objects of suspicion and control as the colonial state took root in the early
nineteenth century. Before land became a scarce commodity there was
also rural migration in search of cultivable land. As one Punjabi, writing
in the 1960s, noted, the family genealogy maintained for religious pur-
poses at the holy Hindu city of Hardwar enabled him to trace the family™s
movements over many generations. They were farmers and sometimes
soldiers. ˜Our family were Khatris from the West Punjab countryside. For

4 W. Crooke, The North-Western Provinces of India. Their History, Ethnology and Administra-
tion (London, Methuen, 1897), p. 326.
5 Census of India, 1921 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report by J. T. Marten (Calcutta, Govern-
ment of India, 1924), p. 88. See also Census of India, 1911 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report
by E. A. Gait (Calcutta, Government of India, 1913), p. 91.
Even in the middle of the century a demographer could write that the Indians had
˜long been famous for their attachment to their native locale™, attributing this to the
predominance of agriculture, the caste system, early marriage and the joint family, the
diversity of language and culture in India, and lack of education. K. Davis, The Population
of India and Pakistan (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1951; reissued 1968, Russell
and Russell), p. 108.
Traditions of stability and movement 13

two centuries we had been moving along the banks of the Jhelum river,
sometimes on its eastern and sometimes on its western bank, and for a
while in the Himalayan foothills where the river drains into the plain.™6
The history of another Punjabi village, studied in detail from 1848 to
1968, shows that even in 1848 nine men from the village were living else-
where with their families, even though they were from the Sahota caste,
agriculturalists with a claim to village land.7 A further sort of rural move-
ment was that of women, particularly in north India, where girls moved
out of their natal village and away from their close kin to marry within the
larger endogamous group. Although this was permanent internal migra-
tion, young brides would return to their own family, for example for the
birth of a ¬rst child, and such journeys and the networks of kinship set
up over generations by marriage created social networks spanning con-
siderable distances.8 Another form of internal mobility was the practice
of pilgrimage. Hindus travelled to the great temples of southern India or
to the holy cities of the north such as Banares or Hardwar. Some of the
great bathing festivals on the holy river Ganges attracted large numbers,
as they still do today. Muslims, despite a horror of idolatry, would travel
to pay their respects and gain the blessing of Muslim saints, particularly
the saintly ¬gures of the Su¬ movement, at whose shrines they were often
joined by people of other religious traditions.
Evidence also suggests very considerable Indian movement outside the
subcontinent over a long period of time. Religion was one dynamic force.
Indian Muslim learned men were involved in networks of scholarship
and devotion which spanned the Muslim world to east and west. The
presence of Hindu temples, art and architecture in South East Asia also
testi¬es to movement by Hindus outside India over a long period. India
occupied a key geographical position in the maritime world of the Indian
Ocean, at the heart of multiple trade routes stretching from the eastern
coast of Africa to South East Asia, and eventually to Europe. Given the
natural barrier of the Himalayan mountain range, and the dif¬culties of
land travel, water-borne movement of people and goods was by far the
easiest and quickest mode of movement. It is not surprising, therefore,
that Indian merchants participated in trade across the region as well as up
and down India™s own coastlines; and when foreigners from Europe ¬rst
engaged in trade “ in spices, tea, cottons, and other materials “ alongside
Indians, they were very much the junior partners, working within systems

6 P. Tandon, Punjabi Century 1857“1947 (London, Chatto & Windus, 1963), p. 9.
7 T. G. Kessinger, Vilyatpur 1848“1968. Social and Economic Change in a North Indian Village
(Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1974), p. 90.
8 British of¬cials noted this female migration with some curiosity in their writings and Cen-
sus reports: see, for example, W. Crooke, The North-Western Provinces of India, pp. 327“8.
14 Global South Asians

which long pre-dated them, and increasingly in alliance with Indian mer-
chants and ¬nanciers.9 One result of this Indian involvement in the wide
arc of Indian Ocean trade was the development of Indian settlements on
the further shores of the ocean. Southern Indian merchant groups such
as the Chettiars developed strong links with parts of Asia east of India,
while Indians from western India travelled to and settled along the East
African coast and in Zanzibar as traders and ¬nanciers. Clearly there
were traditions of movement among India™s peoples, as well as patterns
of long-term stability in the locality of birth and family origin, well before
the British established an imperial presence on the subcontinent, and on
many of these, later patterns of migration were to be founded.

2 India and a larger imperial world
Major changes in patterns of movement within but particularly outside
India occurred from the mid-nineteenth century as India was more tightly
incorporated into the British Empire and, through that political linkage,
drawn into a rapidly changing world economy. As the British economy
led the way in industrialisation, world trade and international ¬nance,
it dominated a new world economic order, drawing in raw materials to
feed its industries and its people, while exporting huge quantities of cap-
ital, manufactures and people. As a result of these processes fewer and
fewer parts of the world were left untouched by the symbiotic processes
of industrialisation and imperialism. India was at the heart of this deep-
ening global interconnection,10 and became increasingly signi¬cant for
Britain as a source of raw materials, a market for manufactured goods, a
destination for capital investment, and a source of labour for other parts
of the Empire. Moreover, until the 1920s the Indian tax payer ¬nanced
the world™s largest standing army, which could be used around the globe
to support the Empire in times of crisis.
Swifter travel and communication was part of the later nineteenth cen-
tury pattern of imperial incorporation into a world economy, and had a
profound in¬‚uence on the personal mobility of people, including Indians.

9 See P. J. Marshall, ˜The British in Asia: Trade to Dominion, 1700“1765™, chapter 22
of his edited volume, The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume II. The Eighteenth
Century (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).
10 Deepak Nayyar calls the period 1870 to 1914 an earlier period of globalisation: see
his chapter 6, ˜Cross-border movements of people™, in his edited volume, Governing
Globalization. Issues and Institutions (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002). This is an
excellent broad introduction to understanding the wider environment of migration. On
the British imperial economy see B. R. Tomlinson, chapter 3, ˜Economics and Empire:
the periphery and the imperial economy™ in A. Porter (ed.), The Oxford History of the
British Empire. Volume III. The Nineteenth Century.
Traditions of stability and movement 15

In India itself roads and railways were seen as vital for security, as they
enabled the rapid transport of troops as well as civilians and goods. Major
roads began to be metalled in the 1850s. But far more important was the
new railway network, begun in 1853, built mainly by private companies
but backed by the government through a guaranteed rate of return on
their investments. By 1910 India had the fourth largest network in the
world. The length of track had risen from 1,349 kilometres in 1860 to
25,495 kilometres in 1890, and had doubled again by 1920“1921.11 The
carriage of freight and people escalated dramatically. Some people had
predicted that Indians would not use the railways, but they were proved
comprehensively wrong. In 1871 19 million passengers travelled, and by
1901 the ¬gure was 183 million. Just before independence over 1 billion
were buying tickets annually. As the 1911 Census commented, ˜A jour-
ney of a thousand miles is easier than one of a hundred miles a century
ago.™12 Equally important developments occurred in international travel
in this imperial age, connecting the subcontinent with a wider world.
Steam began to give way to sail, shortening travel times, though sailing
ships remained pro¬table on very long-distance routes almost to the end
of the nineteenth century. The London government effectively subsidised
the Peninsular and Orient shipping line (P&O) to India with the valuable
mail contract, and the regular P&O service connecting Britain and India
started in 1840. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also signi¬cantly
reduced the distance travelled by sea from Britain to India, as well as the
time taken. Plymouth to Bombay was 10,450 miles round the Cape of
Good Hope, but only 6,000 via Suez; and the Plymouth to Calcutta route
dropped from 11,380 miles via the Cape to 7,710 via Suez. A network
of coaling and repair stations was built along the major shipping lanes of
the Empire, as were the telegraphic linkages which similarly connected
the imperial world and its peoples.13
As a result of these changes in transportation, Indians began to move
within India and across the seas in far greater numbers and in response to
more opportunities. The 1911 Census enumerated just over 27 million
Indians who had left the district where they were born: this constituted
8.7 per cent of the population. In 1921 the ¬gure was 30 million or 10
per cent of the population.14 Many of these people were living in districts
11 On the railways see the section by J. H. Hurd, pp. 737“761 in D. Kumar and M. Desai
(eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of India. Volume 2: c. 1757“1970 (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1983).
12 Census of India, 1911 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report by E. A. Gait, p. 91.
13 A. N. Porter (ed.), Atlas of British Overseas Expansion (London, Routledge, 1991),
pp. 144“152.
14 Census of India, 1911 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report by E. A. Gait, chapter 3; Census of
India, 1921 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report by J. T. Marten, chapter 3.
16 Global South Asians

next to the one where they had been born, but others had moved much
further away. For men the opportunity which triggered internal migration
was normally some new form of work. Many left their home localities
in search of agricultural labour, particularly in areas where there were
tea plantations. It was partly for this reason that Assam had the largest
number of ˜foreigners™ of all areas of India, and they came from relatively
near (Bihar and Orissa, Central Provinces, and United Provinces) and
from far away in Madras. Bihar and Orissa and United Provinces were
by far and away the largest sending areas, re¬‚ecting the fragile nature of
agriculture and population pressure in those areas. Others left for work
in the growing industrial towns such as Bombay and Calcutta. Bengal
and Bombay Presidency (where these two cities were located) had 4%
and 3.9% respectively of outsiders when the 1921 Census was taken.
In Bombay City, which was expanding rapidly on the back of industrial
growth, particularly in the cotton industry, the cotton mill workforce
came mainly from areas up to 200 miles away. In Calcutta and its environs
the jute industry also became a magnet for migrant workers and, in 1921,
of a workforce in the jute mills of 280,000, just under a quarter were
local Bengalis while over half came from Bihar and United Provinces.15
Such migrant labour moved out of necessity, but more prosperous groups
also followed new economic opportunities. The Marwaris were one of
the most obvious economic success stories of the period. A merchant
community originally from Rajputana in western India, they fanned out
across the north of the subcontinent to reach Calcutta, and also moved
south to Bombay City. In Calcutta they became traders in a wide span
of commodities, from cotton piece goods to unprocessed commodities
such as jute, oilseeds and grain, and they also became deeply involved
in credit and banking. It was from this community that one of India™s
greatest industrialists of the twentieth century was to emerge “ G. D.
Others who moved away from home but within India did so in direct
response to opportunities provided by the new imperial government.
Most obviously there were those who enlisted in the new Indian army,
of¬cered by British men but manned entirely by Indian soldiers, known as

15 See M. D. Morris, The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India. A Study of the
Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854“1947 (Berkeley and Bombay, University of California Press
and Oxford University Press, 1965), chapter 4 and particularly p. 63; on Bengal see D.
Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History. Bengal 1890“1940 (Princeton, Princeton
University Press, 1989), p. 9.
16 See M. M. Kudaisya, The Life and Times of G. D. Birla (New Delhi, Oxford University
Press, 2003), particularly chapter 1.
Traditions of stability and movement 17

sepoys. It was made up almost entirely of rural men who fell into the impe-
rial categories of ˜martial races™, groups thought to be by physique and
character particularly suitable for military service. Particularly notable
was the high proportion in the army of Sikhs from the Punjab, now clas-
si¬ed as a ˜martial race™. By the First World War about 150,000 were
soldiers, about one quarter of all armed personnel on the subcontinent.
The reasons for Indian enlistment were varied but included familial strat-
egy for maximizing family prosperity, as the pay was regular and good,
as were pensions, while agriculture was subject to the vagaries of nature
and land was becoming scarce. Some groups were proud of their long-
established military traditions and merely continued them under new
masters.17 Service in the army could take men across India and beyond
its borders. Another group who responded to new opportunities offered
by the British were those farmers who migrated to the new canal colonies
in the Punjab in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a
remarkable exercise of internal migration and social engineering. The
government hoped to create new model village communities to relieve
the pressure on existing cultivated land, to increase local revenue and
exports, to build groups of supporters and to provide homes for existing
allies such as old soldiers and government servants. New forms of canal
irrigation enabled the cultivation of several million acres of once arid
wasteland, and the government was anxious only to welcome into these
model agricultural colonies peasant groups thought to be of ˜the best
class™ of agriculturalist. Thousands moved in response to this remarkable
chance of access to land relatively near to their original homes.18 After
Burma came under the British Indian government in mid-nineteenth cen-
tury, Indians also moved there for many different kinds of work “ from
manual and semi-skilled labour (particularly in the docks and factories of

17 See D. Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj. The Indian Army, 1860“1940 (Houndmills and
London, MacMillan, 1994). Chapter 2 deals with enlistment.
18 See D. Gilmartin, ˜Migration and modernity: the state, the Punjabi village, and the set-
tling of the canal colonies™, chapter 1 of I. Talbot and S. Thandi (eds.), People on the Move.
Punjabi Colonial and Post-Colonial Migration (Karachi, Oxford University Press, 2004).
See also the impact of the canal colonies on one village in the most densely populated
district of Punjab, in T. G. Kessinger, Vilyatpur, pp. 90“92. By 1901 the district of Jul-
lunder, where Vilyatpur was located, had produced over 56,000 settlers in the colonies.
The view of the canal colony experiment from the perspective of an admittedly pater-
nalist member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) is to be found in chapter 7 of Sir Malcolm
Darling, The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt (1925; reprinted with a new introduc-
tion by C. J. Dewey, New Delhi, Manohar, 1977). An account of the work settling one
of the canal colonies by another ICS man, Malcolm Hailey, later to become an inter-
national imperial ¬gure, is chapter 2 of J. W. Cell, Hailey. A study in British Imperialism,
1872“1969 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992).
18 Global South Asians

Rangoon), to jobs in the lower echelons of the civil service, and as money-
lenders and traders. By 1901 Indians made up nearly half the population
of Rangoon.19
Indians who had taken advantage of new forms of higher education in
English and professional trainings also began to move in the service of the
British raj and its institutions. Some moved out of their home provinces
as imperial of¬cials in the lower levels of civil government. This was
the origin of some of the Bengali communities to be found in northern
India. As education spread so did the rapid response of local groups to
its implications for their status and fortunes. Increasing numbers became
professionals of various kinds, particularly lawyers, and moved to towns
and cities where they could ¬nd employment. The Punjabi author quoted
earlier recorded the move to professionalisation in his own family in his
grandfather™s generation, who were born 1840“1850.20 The Nehru fam-
ily which gave India three Prime Ministers in the ¬rst half century of
independence, was a classic example of upwardly mobile migrants who
originated in Kashmir and via Delhi came to Allahabad in the United
Provinces, where Jawaharlal™s father made a fortune and a reputation as a
civil lawyer. He came to count the Lieutenant-Governors of the province
as personal friends and drinking companions, and he was the ¬rst Indian
to buy a substantial house in the exclusive part of the city conventionally
reserved for the British.21 At a far lower social level there were those Indi-
ans who went into the personal service of British people and families, and
moved with them as cooks, bearers and ayahs (nursemaids) when their
employers were posted to new places in the subcontinent, often to be
handed on in turn to other British employers by personal recommenda-
tion when their former employers returned to Britain.
However the most remarkable aspect of movement among Indians as
India was incorporated into the British imperial economy was the dra-
matic increase in the numbers who now travelled abroad. This was partic-
ularly signi¬cant among higher caste Hindus, for whom travel across the
sea had been thought of as ritually polluting. As late as 1902, when the
Maharaja of Jaipur went to London to attend the coronation of Edward
VII, he resolved the issue of pollution by chartering a whole ship, the SS
Olympia, which was cleansed and consecrated so that he could effectively
19 K. S. Sandhu and A. Mani (eds.), Indian Communities in Southeast Asia (Singapore,
Times Academic Press, 1993), chapter 25. The journey to Burma was generally made
by sea, but I include Burma and Ceylon as part of the subcontinent compared with
destinations which involved a longer sea crossing to a different cultural world.
20 P. Tandon, Punjabi Century 1857“1947, pp. 15“18, 25“29.
21 J. Nehru, An Autobiography (London, Bodley Head, 1936), chapters 1“3. See also the
autobiography of Nehru™s sister, V. L. Pandit, The Scope of Happiness. A Personal Memoir
(London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979).
Traditions of stability and movement 19

travel across the water while still in India, eating and drinking only those
things which came from India. This involved shipping cows and fodder
for them, so that he could drink fresh ˜Indian™ milk daily. Lesser mortals
could not afford such expensive attention to older beliefs, and for many
who travelled overseas there were considerable qualms of conscience, and
often major problems with their families and castes on their return home.
Nehru commented on the storm within the Kashmiri Brahmin commu-
nity of northern India when his father, Motilal, and others of the older
generation travelled across the sea. Motilal refused to perform a puri¬-
cation ceremony on his return, but many others did so for the sake of
peace, albeit without any real sense of religious obligation.22 The young
M. K. Gandhi was also of¬cially outcasted by his own community when
he travelled to England to study law in 1888.23 The trajectories of many
of these overseas migrants will be followed in the next chapter. Here it is
signi¬cant just to note the range of people who went abroad both on a tem-
porary and permanent basis, to indicate just how the links between India
and a wider world were developing from the later nineteenth century.
By far the largest group of those who left India, many on a permanent
basis, were those who served the Empire in some way, using ˜service™
here to denote many forms of paid work which sustained the imperial
enterprise. By far the largest number were those who went as unskilled
labour under a contract of indenture to work throughout the Empire in
plantations and to a far lesser extent in mines, helping to provide the raw
materials which were vital to feed Britain™s population and fuel the pro-
cess of industrialisation. Few of those who worked in Natal or Trinidad,
for example on sugar plantations, would have recognised their position as
cogs in an imperial machine, but they were essential to Britain™s world-
wide power and standing. For them labour overseas was most often per-
ceived as the chance of temporary work abroad with assured pay, whatever
the reality they eventually encountered. The system lasted from 1830 to
1916 and in this period hundreds of thousands of Indians moved over-
seas under its aegis, over half a million to the Caribbean, similar numbers
to Mauritius, and over 152,000 to Natal, to take just some of the main
More obviously in the service of the Empire were Indians who trav-
elled overseas in the Indian army. Indian sepoys saw service in the later

22 Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 13.
23 M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (¬rst pub.
1927: paperback ed., London, Jonathan Cape, 1966), pp. 34“35.
24 Indentured labour will be discussed in the next chapter. A good introduction to the
subject is D. Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism 1834“1922 (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1995).
20 Global South Asians

nineteenth and twentieth centuries throughout the world, from China
to the Middle East to the Western Front in the First World War.25 The
Brighton Pavilion on the south coast of Britain, an exotic oriental fantasy
and former royal residence, was given over during this war to become
a hospital for Indian soldiers recovering from their wounds in Europe,
presumably in part because it was felt they would feel at home there. For
some soldiers the end of military service brought the rewards of a pension
and land back in their natal region in India. For others travel with the
army opened the opportunity of further travel and work abroad. Sikhs,
who had become a major group within the army, following their military
service, moved on in signi¬cant numbers and inspired kin and friends
to venture abroad to become guards, police and security personnel in
many areas of the Empire. They were to be found in this type of work in
Hong Kong, Malaya, and in British colonies in East Africa. The Hong
Kong police was heavily Sikh and Punjabi Muslim from the 1860s into
the twentieth century. The East African Ri¬‚es, established in 1895, also
drew on Sikhs. Others found work in the new imperial railway systems of
East Africa. The military experience also drew old soldiers, again mostly
Sikhs, even further away from India to the western coast of northern
America, particularly to Vancouver and California.26 Smaller numbers of
Indians who served the Empire abroad included Indian sailors or lascars,
who worked on ships running between Asia and Britain. Many of these
spent some time in British ports awaiting further work. Their conditions
attracted of¬cial notice from the early 1800s, but it was not until Henry
Venn, London clergyman and secretary of the Church Missionary Soci-
ety (which sent missionaries to India as well as other lands), took up their
cause in 1857 that a home for ˜Asiatic™ and African sailors was opened
in London: it lasted until 1937. Similarly, personal servants of British
people who had worked in India found themselves in England, often des-
titute when their employers abandoned responsibility for them. Some of
the better organised were ayahs, female servants who were often nannies,
who had an Ayahs™ Home in London by the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury, where they waited for employers who wished for their services on
a voyage home to India. In the early years of the twentieth century there

25 A selection of letters from Indian soldiers who reached Europe in 1914“1918 is found in
D. Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War. Soldiers™ Letters, 1914“18 (Houndmills, London
and New York, MacMillan and St. Martin™s Press, 1999).
26 See D. S. Tatla, ˜Sikh free and military migration during the colonial period™, in R. Cohen
(ed.), The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (Cambridge, Cambridge Univesity Press,
1995), pp. 69“73; T. R. Metcalf, ˜Sikh recruitment for colonial military and police forces,
1874“1914™, chapter 13 of his Forging the Raj. Essays on British India in the Heyday of
Empire (New Delhi, Oxford University Press 2005).
Traditions of stability and movement 21

were around 4,000 Indians in England and Wales, and 177 were women,
presumably many of whom were ayahs in transit.27
The opportunities for work overseas offered by India™s incorporation
in an empire which was rapidly expanding its territorial sway in the later
nineteenth century, also encouraged other sorts of free migrants who
were willing to make long-term or permanent homes away from India.
Many commercial communities saw and took the new chances open to
them, such as those who went to East and South Africa, mainly from
western India. They were known as ˜passenger Indians™ because they
paid for their own sea passages, in contrast to indentured labourers, and
sometimes as ˜Arabs™, re¬‚ecting the numbers of western Indian Muslims
who travelled further west to Africa. It was for such a commercial ¬rm
of Muslim Gujaratis from Porbandar on the western coast of Gujarat,
trading in South Africa, that Gandhi went to work as a struggling lawyer
in 1893, after he had failed to make his way in India on his return from
studying law in London. The Shia Ismailis were a distinctive Muslim
trading group from the west coast of India who prospered in Zanzibar
in the nineteenth century and then moved inland into Uganda after the
establishment of British rule. Yet other Indians took up work in the civil
employment of the governments of new imperial territories of East Africa.
A ¬nal and expanding group of overseas Indian travellers were those
who went for higher education, professional training, and what might
be called missionary or publicity work on behalf of Indian religious and
social causes. Although few of these made their homes abroad their trav-
els formed yet another strand in the many which increasingly knit India
into a worldwide web of interconnections, and their experiences spread
knowledge of that wider world among those at home who met them on
their return, or heard and read about their experiences. Among them
were the growing numbers of students who travelled mainly to England
for higher education and professional training, particularly in law. Obvi-
ously they came from comparatively wealthy families who could afford
the fees and costs of travel. Many found the experience at times lonely
and bewildering, as both Gandhi and Nehru noted in their very different
autobiographies. Nehru from his wealthy cosmopolitan background ¬t-
ted into public school and Cambridge with considerable ease in the years

27 The vast majority of the Indians who were counted in England, Wales, and Scotland
were aged 20“34 “ an age when they were likely to be students or in work. See appendix,
p. 111 in Census of India, 1911 Volume 1. India. Part 1 “ Report by E. A. Gait. There are
discussions of Indians in Britain during the whole period of East India Company activity
and British rule in M. Fisher, Counter¬‚ows to Colonialism. Indian Travellers and Settlers in
Britain 1600“1857 (Delhi, Permanent Black, 2003); and R. Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and
Princes. Indians in Britain 1700“1947 (London, Pluto Press, 1986).
22 Global South Asians

just before the First World War. A few years earlier the young Gandhi
from a far more provincial and conservative background found the cul-
tural adjustments of the voyage and of life in London deeply perplexing.
He was too shy to eat in public on board ship, not knowing how to use a
knife and fork, and fearing to ask what dishes contained meat. On arrival
in England the business of ¬nding proper vegetarian food continued to
be a problem, as did numerous cultural issues such as admitting that he
had married as an early teenager according to Indian custom.28 But the
experience of education and training in England was the springboard for
the later professional and political careers of both Gandhi and Nehru,
as it was for many of their contemporaries. Indeed, the British govern-
ment was greatly concerned about the experience of Indian students at
the heart of the Empire, commissioning reports on their lives in 1907
and 1922, and it was particularly watchful for radical tendencies among
them. In time even some Indian women travelled to Britain to study,
including Cornelia Sorabji (b.1866) who became India™s ¬rst woman
lawyer, and Nehru™s own daughter, Indira (b. 1917) who became India™s
¬rst woman Prime Minister. Both studied at Oxford.29 A rather differ-
ent Indian woman traveller to England was Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, a
young Hindu Brahmin widow who came to see herself as both Hindu and
Christian. She travelled to England for study in the early 1880s and then
went on to America, where she became something of a sensation with her
talks pleading for help for Indian women, particularly high caste widows.
In 1889 she wrote for an Indian audience a fascinating and at times hilar-
ious account of her American visit, covering the system of government,
living and domestic conditions, learning, religion and charity, the con-
dition of women, and trade and business.30 Whereas Ramabai sought to
elicit understanding and ¬nancial assistance, others who travelled west
with an ideological agenda sought to preach reformed versions of the
varied traditions which made up what came to be called ˜Hinduism™.
One reformist tradition was the Ramakrishna Movement, originating in

28 On Gandhi™s experiences travelling to and living in England, see his Autobiography,
chapters 13“24.
29 See the autobiographical work of Cornelia Sorabji, India Calling, ¬rst published in
London in 1934, new edition by C. Lokuge (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2001).
Benjamin Jowett, a famous Victorian Master of Balliol College, Oxford who was deeply
interested in the Indian empire, befriended Cornelia, who was at Somerville College,
introducing her to many notable ¬gures in British public life. Balliol became famous for
admitting Indian male students and also for training future members of the Indian Civil
Service. Fascinating information on Oxford™s many connections with the Empire is to be
found in R. Symonds, Oxford and Empire. The Last Lost Cause? (Oxford University Press
and MacMillan, 1986; revised paperback edition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991).
30 R. E. Frykenberg (ed.), Pandita Ramabai™s America. Conditions of Life in the United States
(Grand Rapids and Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans, 2003).
Traditions of stability and movement 23

Bengal, whose leader, Swami Vivekananda, travelled to the USA in 1893
to speak at the World Parliament of Religions. He stayed for four years,
gaining a body of western disciples, and founding a number of Vedanta
societies to spread his reformist ideas. A somewhat different brand of
Hindu reform movement was the Arya Samaj, strongest in western India,
which called for a puri¬ed Hinduism based on the Vedas. Apart from its
religious, educational and social work in India it also sent missionaries to
many of those places, including the Caribbean and Natal, where Hindu
indentured labourers had gone, to rectify what they saw as their degraded
religious state.
The evidence suggests that during the period from the mid-nineteenth
century to the First World War, many Indians left the area where they
had been born to make new lives for themselves on the subcontinent or
across the seas. India became involved in a dense and varied network of
connections which linked its peoples and economy to many other parts
of the world, as a result of the incorporation of the subcontinent into the
British Empire at just that historical juncture when Britain dominated
the world economy, and was culturally of global signi¬cance through
its imperial institutions and its language. However, in the early years of
the twentieth century the pattern of outward movement from India was
dampened down for a variety of reasons. The system of indenture was
abolished after the war, not least because of intense hostility towards it
among educated Indians, just when their opinions were beginning to be
taken seriously by their imperial rulers in the context of major consti-
tutional reform. Then the Depression, which engulfed the world econ-
omy in the interwar period, precipitated a slump in the price of primary
goods and the global demand for labour. Meantime, domestic politics in
large parts of the English-speaking world led to changes in immigration
policies, designed to keep out immigrants of ethnic origins not deemed
desirable. Australia for example adopted a ˜white Australia™ policy, and
the USA also devised immigration rules which kept out Indians. Globally
people now needed passports to travel, compared with an earlier relaxed
era where little or no documentation was needed to cross international
borders. These changes proved, however, to be only temporary barriers
to Indian overseas migration.

3 The opportunities of a post-colonial world
The Indian subcontinent achieved independence from British rule in

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