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Diversities in The Indian Diaspora (Nature, Implications, Responses)

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Diversities in The Indian Diaspora (Nature, Implications, Responses)
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Item Code: NAF872
Author: N. Jayaram
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9780198090359
Pages: 268
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 282 gms
About the Book

Among the immigrants of diverse nationalities worldwide, the Indian diaspora constitutes a sizeable portion. This collection explores the nature and manifestation of institutional and socio-cultural diversities among the large Indian diaspora. It studies Indian communities formed during the colonial era, the so-called 'old diaspora', and those formed largely after India's independence, the so-called 'new diaspora'.

This book will be of considerable interest to students and scholars of politics, sociology, social anthropology, history, gender studies, religion and culture studies, and migration and diaspora studies.

About the Author

N. Jayaram is Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.


In 2008 the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) organized a series of seminars around the concept of 'diversity'. The idea behind these seminars was to develop an initiative where a concept, much in use in our public discourse, and valuable for our understanding of the multiple transformations taking place was identified and explored through the papers presented. These were seen as 'capacious concepts' that had been given inadequate attention by the public discourse which was more preoccupied with the established concepts of 'justice' and 'rights' and 'equality'. Such neglected 'capacious concepts' needed to be inhabited, analytically and empirically, so that they would receive more consideration by the scholarly community, consideration that would enrich our understanding on India through the fine distinctions that would be made by the analytical studies, and the new and rich descriptions that would be offered by the empirical work. 'Diversity' was an obvious first choice for this enterprise.

In this volume of' Understanding Diversities in the Indian Diaspora' the effort has been to map the different aspects of the Indian diaspora. It begins with discussing how the word itself conceals the internal differences within the diaspora which are marked by the different periods of out-migration, the colonial and post-colonial, the different regions and classes from which this happened, the different countries to which they went, the different responses to the receiving cultures. It is a story of diversity as the various peoples of India carried their own conceptions of India with them as they settled down in the new land in which they were making their homes. These imaginations of the old land, the old home, were important to them in their new settings as they worked to make the unfamiliar familiar, as they strove to infuse this new world with meaning and worth. It was a layered process of working with their multiple identities, of giving to each a place and a purpose, of invoking the appropriate one when called for.

The editor of the volume, N. Jayaram, describes it very succinctly in his introduction. 'Depending upon which identiry marker is involved, groups may realign temporarily ignoring other markers of difference:

if caste identity is invoked, sub-caste identities may be suspended; if religious identity is invoked, caste identities may be suspended; if regional or linguistic identity is invoked, caste and religious identities may be suspended; and if the Indian identity is invoked, all other identities may be suspended.' This way of seeing the Indian abroad helps us to understand the part of India that they carry with them and that occasionally comes to the fore when the situation demands. Jayaram has ingeniously organized the papers chosen, from among those presented, into five Parts. I make special mention of this organization not only to draw attention to the conceptual schema that frames it but also to suggest that by this simple act he presents us with a way to organize our thinking about diaspora studies. We get a template by which we can organize explorations in other regions and also a range of themes that are of significance when we think about the Indian diaspora. This template would be useful not just for the scholarly community of diaspora studies but also for policy makers in India engaged with building closer ties with the India diaspora.

Connecting with the prauasi has emerged as an important objective of government policy. There are the obvious reasons for this: of foreign policy, to assist the expansion of India's influence in their adopted country; of economic policy, to increase investment by overseas Indians in India or to at least get them to use their professional networks and institutional location facilitate greater foreign investment in the Indian economy; of science policy, to establish collaborations in areas of knowledge required by India's development plans; and so on.

But studying the diaspora can also be a study of ourselves, a kind of mirror to an 'idealized ancestral motherland'. Linguists can explore how languages evolve in their interaction with dominant languages since the language of the diaspora will remain the language of the home and not the high street and hence may retain both pristine elements of the language which accompanied the migration and also adopt elements from the language of the receiving society. The same would be true of customs and traditions. An interesting exploration would be into the remembered folk tales and community sayings that serve as the cultural constructions of a people and that are invoked when commenting on a behavior or an event or a disposition. How much is remembered and how much forgotten, and why one and not another, would reveal a great deal of our past and of the receiving society, an interesting exercise in historical anthropology.

In recent years the idea of 'home' has gained academic interest, especially in a contemporary world marked by population dislocation because of many factors. From literature to politics, from cuisine to films, the imagined home has come to playa significant parr in the life of the diaspora Indian. It is a source of that which is valuable and to be cherished and an idea that perhaps one would not allow another to belittle. One sees it in the nostalgia with which the Goan working hard in the Gulf states dreams of the summer months in Goa with its mangoes and its fried prawns, or the Goan in Australia who makes it a point to celebrate the feast of St Francis Xavier on 3 December. One sees it in the pain which the Tamil in exile in Switzerland expresses and the Rabindra Sangeet which a Bengali quickly lapses into at a luncheon party with other Bengalis in San Francisco. One sees the growing popularity of Bollywood and its sartorial style across the diaspora. The relationship between the imagined home and the real home begins to develop a dynamic where the distinction soon blurs as the diaspora recreates little Indias in the adopted country. Whose little India, which little India are questions that will naturally be asked. This valuable book is a big contribution to answering such questions.


Over the last two decades, the term 'Indian diaspora' has become popular and fashionable. Applying the term 'diaspora' uncritically to refer to overseas Indians generally and the increasing currency of its usage in scholarly discussions, governmental policy, and media transactions appear to have led to essentializing the phenomenon designated by it. A closer examination of the empirical studies on the Indian communities abroad, however, reveals that they are heterogeneous and that this heterogeneity is the result of the diversity in the phases, patterns, and processes of migration of Indians abroad and their settlement as communities in different countries.

It was to problematize the study of Indian diaspora by focussing on the diversity of the phenomenon covered under its rubric that the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (lIAS), Shimla and the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore, jointly organized a seminar in Bangalore from 7 to 9 May 2008. In all, twenty-three scholars-including five from outside India and two former career diplomats-participated in the seminar on 'Diversities in the Indian Diaspora: Nature, Implications, and Responses'. Substantively, the proceedings of the seminar revolved around the following themes: (a) the nature and manifestation of institutional and socio-cultural diversities in the Indian diaspora; (b) managing/levelling of the diversities and the assertion of Indian-ness (other than in citizenship terms) by the diaspora; (c) the host country's response to the diversity of the Indian diaspora: multiculturalism versus assimilation models (or what citizenship of the host country entails for Indians in the diaspora), (d) civilizational moorings of the diaspora and the host country's socio-cultural and political reality; (e) the religious, caste, regional, and linguistic associations of the Indian diaspora; (f) the role of the electronic media in reinforcing/neutralizing diversities; and (g) 'India', 'the Indians', and 'the Indian diaspora' as analytical constructs. Presented in this volume are the revised versions of twelve of the eighteen papers read and discussed at the seminar. Considering its thematic relevance, I have included one of my previously unpublished essays by way of conclusion to the volume.

It was Professor Peter Ronald de Souza, Director of IIAS, who suggested to me the idea of an international seminar on diversities in the Indian diaspora. I am grateful to Professor deSouza for his unstinted support to and active involvement in the seminar right from its conception to the conclusion. He persuaded me to put together a selection of the seminar papers for wider discussion on the theme. I appreciate his sincerity of purpose.

In organizing the seminar, I have incurred a debt of gratitude to scores of people. I am thankful to all the scholars and former diplomats who very kindly accepted my invitation to participate in and present their papers at the seminar. Some of them gracefully accepted the responsibility of chairing sessions and steering discussions. Twelve of them took pains to revise their papers in the light of discussions at the seminar and my editorial queries. I would like to thank them doubly for their efforts. My special thanks are due to Ramachandra Guha for his stimulating inaugural address and to Yogesh Atal for his valediction.

I would like to extend my gratitude to the officials at lIAS for facilitating the IIAS-ISEC collaboration. At ISEC, Registrar, Col Ashutosh Dhar; Accounts Officer, L. Gopal and their staff, particularly T. Amarnath, Satish Kamat, KS. Narayana, N. Ramakrishna, T. Srinivasa Murthy, and Shilpa, worked enthusiastically. S. Ramaswamy extended his help in coordinating the participants' visit to Bangalore. Mohana Devi handled the seminar correspondence and coordinated the communication with contributors even afrer I had left ISEC as its Director. Durba Biswas, Anup Dhar, Amrita Ghatak, Sancheeta Ghosh, Priya Gupta, Jajati Keshari Parida, Reetika Syal, Naveen Kumar Sherry, P. Srikant, and Rajdeep Singha were the rapporteurs for various sessions and some of them doubled up as volunteers too. I thank all of them. I would also like to thank the team at Oxford University Press for skillfully turning the manuscript into this attractive volume.



People of the Indian subcontinent have migrated to different countries for various reasons at various periods of its history. Among the immigrants of diverse nationalities, overseas Indians constitute a sizeable segment. It is estimated that besides six million Indian citizens, there are more than twenty million people of Indian origin all over the world (Government of India 2001: 680). Taking 10,000 as the minimum figure, overseas Indians are found in as many as fifty countries, and in seven more countries, they number between 5,000 and 10,000. In as many as six countries (Malaysia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and United States of America), their number is estimated to be more than a million. The people of Indian origin form the single largest ethnic community in Fiji (49 per cent), Guyana (53 per cent), Mauritius (74 per cent), Trinidad and Tobago (40 per cent), and Surinam (37 per cent). They form substantial minority communities in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, and in South Africa and East Africa. They also have a significant presence in Australia, Canada, UK, and US.

Lately, the existence and experience of overseas Indians, their problems and prospects, their aspirations and anxieties, their achievements and failings, their interests and orientations, and so on are discussed under the rubric 'the Indian diaspora'. The term has become popular and fashionable, and is widely used in the media and popular parlance as well as in scholarly literature. The popularity of the term does not, however, mean that there is consensus over its definition or clarity in its usage. The wider currency of the term seems only to have led to terminological confusion, making a serious scholar doubt its analytical utility itself.

Nevertheless, it can hardly be gainsaid that the phenomenon discussed under the rubric of 'the Indian diaspora' has immense theoretical import both in the conventional disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, political science, and sociology and in the emergent areas of study such as cultural studies, gender studies, and international relations. Moreover, its practical significance in diplomacy and international relations on the one hand, and socio-economic and political dynamics within India on the other, can hardly be exaggerated.

Two points need to be clarified here. First, the scholarly interest in the study of the Indian diaspora predates the coinage of the term, that is, its semantic adaptation from its original referent to refer to overseas Indians. For more than a century now, social scientists--especially anthropologists and historians-and diplomats have studied the overseas Indians and produced a large body of informative and insightful literature on the subject (Jain 1993: 63-90; Jayaram 2004b: 219-42; La! 2006a). However, they never thought of applying the term 'diaspora' to encapsulate the phenomenon that they studied." Interestingly, the review of the literature on the focal theme, carried out as part of the Third Survey of Research in Sociology and Anthropology (covering the period 1979-89) under the auspices of the Indian Council for Social Science Research, was titled 'Indian Communities Abroad' (Jain 1993).

The second point: while the coinage of the term 'the Indian diaspora' is nascent, the term 'diaspora' itself is not new; it is ancient. Etymologically, the term diaspora is derived from the Greek composite verb dia- and speirein (infinitive), literally meaning 'to scatter', 'to spread', or 'to disperse'. It was originally used to refer to the dispersion of Jews after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE and to the aggregate of Jews or Jewish communities scattered in exile outside Palestine. In current parlance, however, the term is applied to describe any group of people who are so dispersed (Baumann 2000; Clifford 1994).

In its transference from the specific original referent-the exile of Jews from their homeland-to a general descriptive label for dispersion of a section of a given population, the apparent similarity of migration (that is, the physical movement of people from one habitat to another) is recognized, but the ontological essence of the Jewish migration is lost. Concerning the Jews, the term diaspora essentially connotes two interrelated realities, namely, the experience of exile from and the orientation to their promised homeland. Both these realities have remained an integral part of the idea of diaspora among the Jews for nearly two-and- a-half millennia. As an integral part of their social psyche and cultural ethos, it has been a determinant of their society and culture for centuries and of their polity too, since the establishment of the Jewish Republic of Israel in 1948.

With such a historical and ontological undergirding, the application of the concept of diaspora to any international dispersion or migration of a section or sections of a population would be theoretically muddled and empirically problematic. The uncritical adaptation of the term 'diaspora' to refer to overseas Indians and the increasing currency of its usage in scholarly discussions, governmental policy, and media transactions has shown a tendency towards essentialism. Essentialism results from glossing over the differentiating features of the Indian communities abroad and treating them as a unitary category. One essential characteristic that is presumed to be binding all the Indian communities abroad is the fact that they or their ancestors hail from India, irrespective of when and where they migrated.

The terminological conundrum about 'the Indian diaspora' has not only to do with the application of the term 'diaspora' to Indians and their communities abroad, but also with the idea of India implied in the adjective 'Indian'. It is important to recognize that the boundary of what is called 'India' has not remained the same even during the last one hundred years. Thus, for those who left 'India' before Partition (in 1947) and their descendants, the reference point is 'the subcontinental India' (which includes the present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh); whereas for those leaving 'India' after Partition, it is the political state of India as it exists now. For many who experienced Partition, the reference point is often ambivalent.

Notwithstanding the terminological conundrum, with the term 'the Indian diaspora' having become popular, both in the academia and in the media, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to avoid its usage. Nevertheless, to avoid further confusion, it is advisable, as with many a social science concept, to avoid discussing 'the Indian diaspora' in isolation from the socio-historical and politico-economic context in which an Indian diasporic community is located. In other words, theoretically, 'the Indian diaspora' is a relativistic construct; empirically, it is heterogeneous in manifestation.

Studies on the Indian communities abroad over the last half century (bibliographies in Jain 1993;Jayaram 2009; Lal2006a) confirm that 'the Indian diaspora' is not a homogenous phenomenon; it is a heterogeneous and complex phenomenon, subsuming under it many diverse phases, patterns, and processes. There is yet a long way to go before we could confidently theorize the Indian diaspora. What is important is to unravel as many aspects of its diversity as we can, from as many perspectives as we can, so that in due course, we will have sufficient building blocks of data and conclusions to build a theory upon.


Diversity refers to the existence of a variety; it suggests heterogeneity rather than homogeneity of a phenomenon. Diversity challenges the facility with which generalizations are made about a phenomenon, and the policies or programmes that can be formulated based on facile generalizations. Loden (1996) distinguishes between primary and secondary dimensions of diversity. Primary dimensions cover such core characteristics as race, age, gender, and ethnicity that we cannot change and are more important to our construct of self. Secondary dimensions such as religion, language, education, and income are viewed as more changeable and less influential to our self-identity. This dichotomy is problematic in the study of diaspora. Although an individual or a group of individuals can change his/its religion, religious affiliation remains an important marker of identity in the diaspora. For instance, the Hindu coverts to Presbyterianism in Trinidad are a unique community, distinguishable from and distinguished by not only Hindus, Muslims, and other Christian denominations there, but also Presbyterians elsewhere. Similarly, Sikhs in the diaspora distinguish themselves from and are distinguished by other Punjabis. The Jains, who were earlier classified with the Hindus, proclaim a separate identity in the diaspora now (see Chapter 10 in this volume). One could say the same thing about class divisions in terms of education, occupation, and income: the professionals and the high-income diasporics on the one hand, and the labouring class and the low-income diasporics on the other.

Recognizing this, Cox and Beale define diversity as 'a mix of people in one social system who have distinctly different socially relevant group affiliations' (Cox and Beale 1997: I). Attempts at theorizing 'social identity', which are premised upon such a definition, emphasize how people define themselves in terms of the importance of their socio- cultural characteristics (Tajfel 1981; Tajfel and Turner 1986). Thomas (1999: 5) is, however, uncomfortable with such theorizations in which 'us' versus 'them' is intrinsic to any expression of socio-cultural diversity. He, therefore, stresses on the need to incorporate similarities as well as differences in the definition of diversity: 'individuals who are different in some ways and similar in others' (ibid.).

Thomas is right in emphasizing the importance of both differences and similarities in the population of any society. Excessive emphasis on differences (say, one identity marker such as race, religion, or ethnicity) often results in pitching groups or communities against one another. The conflicts between the Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians in Trinidad or Africans and Indians in South Africa (with race as the key identity marker); between Hindu Tamils and Muslim Malays in Malaysia (with religion and ethnicity as the key identity markers); or between Indians and the indigenes in Fiji (with ethnicity as the key identity marker) are some illustrations of this involving the Indian diasporic communities. One could visualize such strained relations within the Indian diaspora when one or the other differentiating feature is emphasized: the relations between Hindus and Muslims in Trinidad; and between the descendants of Bhojpuri and Tamil migrants in Mauritius are cases in point.

Why do differences get articulated into identity politics? When does identity politics result in social and political conflict? Sociologists have for long pointed to constraints, often unconscious, in every society in terms of socio-economic inequalities and group memberships that shape a person's life choices (Jayaram 1987: 23-53). As members of society, people internalize these inequalities and power relationships in terms of domination and subordination, and view them as hegemony/oppression or even as 'isms' (like racism). Such hegemony/oppression or 'ism', often unrecognized, can impact people's attitudes in terms of internal prejudices/ stereotypes" and/or external discriminatory behaviours.? History is full of examples of efforts at making subordinate groups blend into dominant norms and language, and of these groups asserting their identity to counter the socio-cultural hegemony (and even racism) of the dominant group. Such assertion by the Indian diasporic communities has resulted in what may be called 'the politics of "cultural renaissance'" (Jayaram 2003; Munasinghe 2001). The invention of tradition and revival of culture among the diasporic communities is to be understood in this context (Parekh et al. 2003).


List of Tables and Figuresix
Foreword by Peter Ronald deSouzaxi
List of Abbreviationsxvii
1Introduction: Understanding Diversities in the Indian Diaspora1
I Diaspora from an Indian State: Punjab
2Diversity within the Punjabi Diaspora and the Construction of Nationhood25
3From Product to Process: Sikhs in Southeast Asia49
II Diversity in the Diaspora Locale
4Integration, Assimilation, or Multiple Identities: The Case of the Malaysian Indian Diaspora67
5State Policies and the Indian Diaspora in Malaysia82
6India-in-Diaspora: A Mauritian Perspective101
7Locality and Identity in the Indian Diaspora: Reinvention of Regional/Linguistic Diversities in Mauritius114
8The Indian Communities in Overseas Territories of France: Problems of Identity and Culture125
III Case Studies of Dissposic Communities
9Identity, Ethniciry, and Marginalization: The Cochini Jews in Israel139
10Exploring the Global Jain Diaspora155
11Diaspora: A Mirror to Indian Diversity? Caste, Brahmani m, and the New Diaspora173
IV Gender and Identity in the Diaspora
12Understanding Gender Diversities in the Indian Diaspora193
13Identity Construction in the Diaspora207
V India and the Indian Diaspora
14Heterogeneous Diaspora and Asymmetrical Orientations : India, Indians, and the Indian Diaspora227
Notes on Contributors249

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