Everyone has one of those cousins you know—the guy who you’re afraid to invite to parties because you know he is going to drink a little too much and hit on all your female friends. You reluctantly say hi when you see him, hoping that you don’t have to see him in the future. You would have disowned him years ago, but he is family, after all. Besides, he keeps showing up.
Diaspora South Asians are exactly such cousins to South Asian Americans. Starting in the mid-19th century, the British colonial system sent thousands from the Indian subcontinent, subjecting some to indentured labor while encouraging others to become merchant and small landowners, to far-off locations of the British Empire such as Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. As a result, countries as diverse as Guyana, South Africa, and Fiji have large populations of South Asians today. These populations also produce double-migrants, as many South Asians from these small nations migrate to places like the U.S. and the U.K.
These “twice-migrants” end up in Western countries where they come into contact with other South Asians, the majority of whom arrived in recent migrations that began in the mid-1960s. “Twice-migrants” differ from counterparts because of the different paths they have taken to arrive at the U.S. However, for identification purposes they are all clumped together as South Asians Americans, an identity that masks the diversity of the South Asian diaspora. While America is unaware of the difference between those South Asians from Fiji and those from India, South Asians themselves are unclear about what to make of each other. For the wealthy and educated types, it is very difficult to define community to include those that drive taxis and work other blue-collar positions.
South Asians living in places like Guyana, Trinidad, and Fiji are bound together by the common history of plantation economy and indentured servitude. In the 1830s, the British outlawed slavery. At about the same time, British India was going through major upheavals. Upper-caste landowners, who used their position to claim wealth for themselves, pressured and displaced large numbers of poor Indians. Famine was common, and despair was the theme for the rural poor.
The British, divinely selected to rule the earth, devised a creative solution to their labor shortage—coercing displaced South Asians to work as laborers on five-year contracts in far off colonies. The work would entail doing everything from building railroads to planting sugarcane. The South Asians who signed these “contracts” started to refer to themselves as girmitiyas derived from the English word “agreement.”
Not aware of what awaited them, girmitiyas who signed up for opportunity in the Caribbean arrived into conditions which had just recently been vacated by African slaves. Indian recruiters lied to these destitute, and often illiterate, girmitiyas. Furthermore, because many Hindus were hesitant to travel over open water for fear of losing their caste position, colonial recruiters assuaged the fears of Hindu prospects by telling them that the far-off colonies were only a day’s journey away. Indeed, many people were surprised when they ended up spending weeks on the boats that took them to their destinations.
Once in the colonies, life was hard for these indentured laborers. The workweek was brutal and the constant presence of overseers made life miserable. Because few women made the journey to these colonies, an atmosphere of suspicion emerged amongst the men—leaving a legacy of domestic violence that persists in the descendants of these peoples. Alcoholism and suicide were also widespread as people turned to different methods to escape the brutality they faced.
Many had left India with the intention of returning; but most ended up staying in their new homes. Colonial policy said that after five years of service, laborers could return to India. At the end of five years, most found that they could not return to India. The policies employed in the colonies saw to it that indentured laborers could not save up money for anything–much less a return passage to India. Many opted to stay in their new homes, to start new lives away from the despair of rural India.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are a considerable number of South Asians descendents of girmitiyas taken to Fiji. Those South Asian Americans who view themselves as a model minority do not see their Fijian counterparts as belonging to their community–and there is surprisingly little contact between the two groups. For the most part, Fijians of South Asian descent tend to be less educated than those of the ’60s era migration and see themselves as part of a different migration.
Class divisions are highly visible in the South Asian American community and, occupation, caste, education, and position in the elite of the homeland all play a role in where one fits in the community here. Maybe for these reasons, interactions between the communities is not great.
A function of having so many South Asians in the Bay Area is that we all still very much rely on the local ethno-linguistic identities of the subcontinent—where interaction is limited between all the groups. A few Fijians are able to negotiate a place in the South Asian community and participate in things like the various India Day parades. But they do so as “South Asians” and not as Fijians, having to drop more than a hundred years of a very unsavory family history.
Most of the former colonies that have large South Asian populations are plagued by racial and ethnic violence resulting from a legacy of colonialism. Guyana suffers from hostilities between the African descended community and South Asians. In Fiji, the ethnic Fijians are bitter at having to compete with South Asians for scarce government resources.
South Asian Amer-icans fear being associated with their Fijian, Guyanese, and Ugandan counterparts because the association could damage their image as a model minority—which they have garnered from the American establishment. To make things worse, girmitiyas have the dubious distinction of involvement in all sorts of leftist politics, a thought that unsettles not only the American establishment, but the model minorities as well.
MARGINALIZED FROM DIASPORA
he tenuous relationship between Fijians of South Asian descent and South Asians in the Bay Area is representative of the relationship between the diaspora and South Asia—there is a mutual unease. Most South Asian Americans think that only those residing in the U.K. and the U.S. are members of the diaspora, unaware of the remaining millions of South Asians that reside in Africa, Pacific Islands, and the Caribbean.
In Indian pop-culture, the lives of South Asians living in the West are portrayed glamorously. The lives of those South Asians living in other places receives no such acclaim. The Indian film industry increasingly makes films outside of India, in locations like the U.S., U.K., and Switzerland to accommodate the “diaspora.” To date, there has not been a single film made in Trinidad or Guyana. This kind of neglect in film and entertainment speaks volumes and reflects a larger societal unwillingness to discuss the history of indenture in India.
Highlighting the presence of South Asians in say, the Caribbean, would inevitably mean having to deal with their histories. Films like the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, seek to present the Disney version of history, which absolves the Indian middle-class of any responsibility for the horrors of colonialism in India—freeing them of the burden of challenging the horrible situation confronting South Asia today.
In a way, girmitiyas remind the Indian upper-middle class today of the extent of their collaboration with British colonialism. And that’s why the current round of nationalist films look so nostalgically at rural life in India. A critical look would reveal a different picture altogether. Indentured servitude took place in India for over 70 years before Mahatma Gandhi finally convinced the elites of India to petition to ban the brutal system in around 1915. Boatload after boatload of poor South Asians left British India, for horrors unimagined on foreign shores, as the local elites sat by and thanked God for their privileged positions.
The descendants of girmitiyas often deny their history. My own parents are hesitant to discuss our family history in Fiji. In a society where status is of great value, talking about a family history where the word “slavery” could almost be used is highly discouraged.
The difference between the South Asian Fijian community and the South Asian American community illustrates the shortcomings in how identities work in the U.S. The moniker “South Asian” encapsulates many peoples who have different historical fates and occupy different positions in American society today. It is my opinion that there exists a problem in how the community is defined—that it seems to be exclusive. So, the challenge is to come up with an identity that brings us all together while acknowledging the real differences.
Krishneil Maharaj writes for HardBoiled, an alternative Asian-American newsmagazine at UC Berkeley.