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The Indian Diaspora – Past, Present and Future (Part II)360°ANALYSIS

Ashok Rao, a serial entrepreneur, discusses the Indian Diaspora and its past, present, and future in this three part series. To read part one, click here.

II. History of the Indian Diaspora 

Let us a take a quick look at the Historical Evolution of the Indian Diaspora, which numbers around 30 million. It is worthwhile and most instructive.

The history of migration from India dates back at least two thousand years. The first migration from modern-day India took place at around the time of the reign of Emperor Kanishka (around the 1st century AD). This group of migrators was the Romani people, now known all around the world as “gypsies”, from what today is the Indian state of Rajasthan. They emigrated from India towards the northwest and eventually settled in Eastern Europe.

Another major migration from the Indian subcontinent started in around 500 AD, when a group emigrated to Southeast Asia. The Cholas, a great naval power, conquered what is today Indonesia and Malaysia as well as the so-called ‘Indianized’ kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The influence of Indian culture is still felt strongly in Southeast Asia. This is particularly evident amongst the royal Brahmins kings of Thailand, the archeological wonders of the Angkor Kingdoms of Cambodia, and in Indonesia, especially in Central Sumatra and Bali.

However, in all these early migrations, it is not reasonable – or even acceptable – to apply the label of “Indian Diaspora” to the descendants of those emigrants who left India many centuries ago. These groups’ intermixture with the local population over the centuries has been so great that they eliminated all traces of such “Indian” identity. Therefore, these people are no longer considered PIOs (“People of Indian Origin”).

However, over the past two centuries, India has achieved arguably the world’s most diverse and complex migration histories, forming the Modern Indian Diaspora. Spread across all six continents and 125 countries, it is estimated that about 30 million people now comprise the Indian Diaspora. The characteristics of this diversified group vary to an astonishing degree – yet all of us are part of the same Indian diaspora. It varies to such an extent that we define three subsets of our diaspora: the Old Diaspora, the New Diaspora, and the Gulf Diaspora. There is one consistent theme to all three categories. They were, and continue to be, created by a labor migration – unskilled labor starting two centuries ago, and highly skilled labor after the mid-1960s. The first wave of the Indian Diaspora is what we call the “Old Diaspora.” It began during the early 19th century and continued until the end of the British Raj.

Britain abolished slavery in 1833, and other colonial powers such as France, the Netherlands, and Portugal followed suit. Without the labor of African slaves, their colonies then desperately needed manpower to work the sugar and rubber plantations. To meet this demand, the British established the system of “Indentured Labor Migration” from the Indian subcontinent.

In 1834, Britain began exporting bonded Indian labor to Mauritius. The Dutch and French replicated the British system and also exported Indian workers to their colonies. In just a decade, this small-scale migration became a mass movement to provide cheap labor to British and other European colonies. Conditions of absolute poverty in many parts of India, in addition to the prospect of gaining wealth overseas, motivated Indians to sell themselves and become bonded laborers. The conditions on these journeys were extremely difficult. Mortality was high on British, Dutch and French boats from the sub-continent to these colonies; the rates of mortality were not much better than on the slaver boats that brought black Africans to the plantations of the Southern United States.

Workers for plantations in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Fiji arrived mainly from the present-day states of Bihar and UP. In Guyana and East Africa, laborers originated primarily from Punjab and Gujarat. Given the proximity of Tamil Nadu to French possessions in India like Pondicherry, the workers in most French colonies, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Reunion, were Tamils. The majority of these migrants were males. This brutal indenture system lasted until World War I.

In response to severe international criticism, Britain abolished the indenture system in 1916. By that time, more than 1.5 million Indians had been shipped to colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. However, during roughly the same period, another form of labor migration developed. Tapping into the labor surplus of South India, mostly in the modern-day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Colonial bosses of tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Burma authorized Indian headmen to recruit entire families and ship them to plantations. About five million Indians, mostly poor Tamils, migrated to these three countries until the system was abolished just prior to World War II.

Around that same time, merchants and traders from Gujarat and Sindh settled in British colonies in the Middle East, and South and East African. For example, Gujarati and Sindhi merchants became shop owners in East Africa, and traders from Kerala and Tamil Nadu were involved in retail trade and money lending to poor Indian peasants in Burma, Ceylon and Malaya. By the time of Second World War, the Indian diaspora included approximately six million migrants. Out of this total, over one million Indians were in Burma. At that time, there were only 6,000 Indians in United States.

Today this “Old Diaspora” constitutes 60% of our Indian diaspora, or approximately 18 million PIOs. The Old Diaspora is primarily a pre-WWII phenomenon. The New Diaspora, on the other hand, consists of migrants who left India in large numbers from the mid-1960s onwards – primarily to developed countries like the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. Around 1900, there were less than a thousand Indians in both the UK and the United States. By World War II, the number had grown to about 6,000 in each country.

  • In Britain, this population consisted mostly of unskilled workers for low wages.
  • In the US, this population consisted mostly of Sikhs who worked in agriculture in California.

Many factors contributed to this de minimis trickle of migrants from India to these developed countries. Draconian legislation in the United States had banned immigration to the US from all but a handful of Western European countries. The Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, probably the most overtly racist immigration law in the world at the time, served to limit the annual number of immigrants to the US from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the US dating back to 1890. The year ‘1890’ is not a completely arbitrary benchmark. The US established the law in order to stop Eastern Europeans Jews who had migrated in large numbers to the US after 1890 to escape persecution in Europe. Though aimed at Eastern Europeans, this law had the collateral effect of prohibiting the entry of Middle Easterners, East Asians, and Indians to the US. According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

Similarly, at the turn of the century in Canada, also part of the British Empire at that time, there were about 100 Indians. This number rose to 5,000 by 1907, before a restrictive new law stopped any further immigration. This law required that all migrants who intended to immigrate to Canada make a continuous journey from the countries of their citizenship. This law stopped Indian immigration in its tracks, since no steamships traveled directly from India to Canada. One must admit it was very clever sleight of hand, since its goal was to stop immigration into Canada from all but a few Western European countries.

The landscape began to change after Indian independence.  A group of unskilled (and some skilled) workers, mostly male Punjabi Sikhs, migrated from India to the United Kingdom. After the war, Britain had a demand for low-skilled labor. Given India’s postcolonial ties and the UK’s Commonwealth immigration policy, which allowed any citizen of a Commonwealth country to live, work, vote, and hold public office in the United Kingdom, Indians came to the UK. Many settled in London as well as industrial cities like Leicester and Birmingham. At the time (from 1947 till 1962), Indian nationals, as Commonwealth citizens, had an unrestricted right to enter the United Kingdom.

In 1962 and again in 1968, the British Commonwealth Immigration Acts rescinded these rights for Indians. However, 20 years later, when the UK was faced with a shortage of highly skilled labor, the UK reversed itself, and Indian migration to the UK picked up considerably. Additionally, during the mid-1960s, anti-Indian discrimination developed in African countries like Kenya and Uganda. This also resulted in a large-scale “Secondary Migration” of PIOs to the UK. Of the current Indian diaspora in the UK, one-fifth is as a result of this secondary migration from East African countries and South Africa.

The dividing line for Indian immigration to the United States, and the significant diaspora formation that resulted, is the year 1965. It was in 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress passed the historic Hart-Celler Act. This legislation terminated the racist 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, abolished national-origins quotas, and made it possible for high-skilled immigrants, including Indians, to gain legal, permanent residence in the United States. The migrants were able to bring their family members as well.

As in the United States, new immigration legislation that opened the doors to highly-skilled immigrants triggered significant immigration of Indians to Canada. In 1968, Canada introduced its points system, which assigns value to qualifications rather than a person’s ethnic or national background. As a result, Indian immigration to Canada boomed.

The 1990s software boom and rising economy in the US attracted Indians by the boatload. The US Immigration Act of 1990, effective from 1995, facilitated this process further by introducing the H-1B temporary worker program, allowing US businesses to hire foreigners with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in “specialty occupations” including doctors, scientists, engineers, and IT specialists. Indian citizens are far and away the top recipients of H-1B visas each year. As a result the Indian diaspora in the US is highly-skilled. The US Census Bureau estimates that 75% percent of all ethnic Indians working in the US hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and 69% percent work in management and professional occupations.

US, UK and Canadian census data from 2010 estimates that the Indian diaspora grew to three million in the US, 1.5 million in the UK, and one million in Canada – a twentyfold increase in half a century. Today, we are the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States after the Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese.

Also, since the 1990s, Australia and New Zealand have become important destination countries for Indians. Both countries look to attract English-speaking, highly-qualified professionals, often to supply their IT industries. The Indian diaspora in Australia numbers 400,000, almost two percent of Australia’s total population.

The most recent development of the Indian Diaspora is the so-called “Gulf Diaspora”. The 1970s oil boom in the Middle East ended up triggering significant migration from India to the Persian Gulf. An increasing number of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, primarily from South India, have worked in the gulf countries on temporary schemes in the oil industry and in services and construction.  With modern air transportation, this was on a contractual basis rather than the permanent basis that was the case in the 19th century. These Gulf countries have a common policy of refusing to naturalize non-Arabs, even if they are born in the Gulf Countries. Thus members of the Diaspora in these countries are relegated to a kind of “second class” status. At one time, the fastest growing segment of our diaspora, the Gulf Diaspora, has now stabilized at around 5 million.

Though these three groups of the Indian Diaspora differ in many ways, all three groups are labor migrants. The more recent migration of skilled and highly-skilled labor went to the developed countries like the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and formed parts of new Indian Diaspora. The lower skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor immigrated to the Gulf region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.