History of Indian Diaspora

Diasporas -- transnational communities created by emigration, very often forced emigration -- have a long history on Tripartite Alliance Earth as on the other worlds of the ITA. Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Africans, Chinese, Lebanese, Romani -- all of these communities, and more besides, constitute transnational communities in their own rights. The largest diaspora, though, counting more than 20 million members worldwide, is the Indian diaspora.

In the study of Indian Diaspora, it is customary to distinguish between two main phases of emigration: "Overseas emigration in the nineteenth century" and "Twentieth century migration to industrially developed countries" (see Jain 1993: Contents). For analytical convenience, these could be termed the colonial and the post-colonial phases of Indian diaspora. It is, no doubt, possible to identify overlaps between these two phases: The emigration of Indians that began in the second quarter of the nineteenth century continued into the early decades of the twentieth century. The trickle of emigration of Indians to the "industrially developed countries," which assumed phenomenal proportions in the post-colonial phase, could be noticed in the nineteenth century itself. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the distinctive nature of these two phases of migration, for their causes, courses and consequences. Studies on Indian diaspora have largely focused on one of the aforementioned phases. This is easy to understand considering the magnitude of the populations involved, and the variegated nature of their economic status and political predicament in different diasporic situations. Furthermore, some of these diasporic communities have been topical or their members themselves have begun manifesting an acute sense of "community self-awareness." Not less important, in many of these cases, archival records and other secondary data can be found with greater ease, and the conventional techniques of historical, anthropological and sociological research can be easily adopted.

Indian Diaspora in Ancient Times

It should be emphasized, however, that the emigration of Indians has a much longer history than what the reference point of colonialism seems to suggest. In the history of ancient India, we come across accounts of the Buddhist bhikkus who traveled into remote corners of Cental and Eastern Asia. Maritime history of pre-colonial India records evidence of continuous contact between the kingdoms of the Coromandel coast and the islands of South-East Asia. The contact of the Palas of Bengal with the Sailendra kings of Indonesia and the expeditions of the South Indian Cholas which vanquished the great Indonesia empire of Sri Vijaya are repeatedly referred to by scholars (see Tinker 1977:1). Several elements of Hindu and Buddhist religion, mythology and culture have survived in South-East Asia, and most notably in Thailand and Bali (see Vincent Smith 1958). "Yet none of these contacts led to a distinctive Indian population overseas" (Tinker 1977:1). The trade with East Africa, however, lead to a permanent Indian settlement there. In a footnote, McNeill (1963:210) observes that "there is some reason to think that a colony of Indian merchants lived permanently in Memphis, Egypt from about 500 BC" (see also Sastri 1959). In the nineteenth century, when "European explorers like Burton first ventured into the interior [in Africa] they were guided on their way by Indian merchants" (Tinker 1977:2-3). These early migrants to East Africa belonged mainly to small trading communities like the Ismailis, Bhoras and Banyas of the Gujarat region. Their counterparts covering Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Thailand, and Indonesia were mainly Nattukkottai Chettyars of Chettinad in the Tamil region of South India. Research on the pre-colonial Indian diaspora is scant and sketchy. Even the available data are scattered in historical works. Documenting the sources of such data is necessary. With the help of historians compiling the basic research material on the subject may even be possible.

In terms of the magnitude of emigration and its spread, the European colonization, marked by the penetration of mercantile capitalism in Asia, was the most crucial phase in Indian diaspora. Large scale emigration of Indians into far off lands was facilitated by the integration of peripheral economies into the emerging world capitalist system, the onset of a revolution in transportation and communication, and the opening of the Suez Canal. The phenomenal trade surpluses earned by the European mercantile class in the wake of geographical discoveries were invested in mines and plantations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. This created an enormous demand for a cheap and regulated labor force. By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the demand for labor was accentuated by the ever expanding colonial economy, the growing opposition to slavery and its eventual abolition (by England in 1833, by France in 1848 and by Holland in 1863), and the inability of the European countries to meet the shortfall in labor by deploying their own labor force. A combination of factors made India (and China) an extant reservoir of cheap, docile, and dependable labor, especially to work on the plantations. Tinker (1993) provides one of the most comprehensive surveys of the emigration of Indian labor overseas during the colonial era. Broadly three distinct patterns of Indian emigration are identifiable in this period:(1) "indentured" labor emigration, (2) kangani and maistry labor emigration, and (3) "passage" or "free" emigration. The indentured labor emigration, so called after the contract3 signed by the individual laborer to work on plantations, was officially sponsored by the colonial government. It began in 1834 and ended in 1920. The overwhelming majority of the labor emigrants under this system were recruited from North India. These labor emigrants were taken to the British colonies of British Guiana, Fiji, Trinidad and Jamaica; the French colonies of Guadalupe and Martinique; and the Dutch colony of Surinam. The kangani (derived from Tamil kankani, meaning foreman or overseer) system prevailed in the recruitment of labor for emigration to Ceylon and Malaya (see Jayaraman 1975:6). A variant of this system, called the maistry (derived from Tamil maistry, meaning supervisor) system was practiced in the recruitment of labor for emigration to Burma. Under these systems the kangani or maistry (himself an Indian immigrant) recruited families of Tamil laborers from villages in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Under these systems the laborers were legally free, as they were not bound by any contract or fixed period of service. These systems, which began in the first and third quarter of the nineteenth century, were abolished in 1938. Emigration from India did not cease after the abolition of indenture and other systems of organized export of labor. There was a steady trickle of emigration of members of trading communities from Gujarat and Punjab to South Africa and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), and those from South India to South East Asia. Most laborers emigrated to East Africa to work on the railroad construction. These emigrants were not officially sponsored: they themselves paid their "passage" and they were "free" in the sense that they were not bound by any contract.

Major Indian Populations Outside Indian Community (1985-2000)

Country Total Indian population in 2000 Percentage of total national population in 2000
Arabia 1,400,000 61
East African Community 380 000 1
England 2 850 000 7
Fiji 470 000 63
Kwazulu 850 000 19
Mauritius 700 000 52
Reunion 240 000 47
Surinam 950 000 58
Trinidad 270 000 43
Rest of European Confederation 3 450 000 0.5
Contact our experts now ยป

NRIOL.COM, the premier online community since 1997 for the Non Resident Indians. NRIOL provides a range of resourceful services for immigrants and visitors in the US, the UK, UAE, Australia and other nations with large NRI communities.


NRI Online Pvt. Ltd.

Phone: +918041101026


Estd. 1997 © Copyright NRI Online Pvt. Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide.

Indian Diaspora x