An Ode to the Indian Diaspora

From Gladstone coolies to the plantations to computer code professionals in Silicon Valley, the Indian Diaspora has come of age as the educated, brainy tech Maharaja of the world.


The contemporary story of the rise of India is intertwined with the Indian Diaspora, which has played a vital role in the economic resurgence of the country.


Though Indians had been venturing out to neighboring Asian countries since as early as the 1st century, the story of the Indian Diaspora primarily has its roots in the penal colony system of the late 18th century and the indentured labor system of the early 19th century. While the former involved the use of convicts as laborers in British South East Asia, the latter was started by would-be British premier Gladstone to supplant the needs of planters after black slavery was abolished in the early 19th century.

The first ship that set sail from the Calcutta harbor in 1830s for the Bahamas, with a human cargo of 400 indentured laborers, is that blur, the opening fade in shot in history, when this great odyssey of the Indian Diaspora began. Between the 1830s and 1917, when the indentured system ended, nearly 1.5 million Indians were sold into debt-bondage. Some 240,000 were sent to British Guiana (now Guyana), 36,000 to Jamaica and nearly 144,000 to Trinidad.

This “Desperate Diaspora” (to borrow a term from historian Brij Lal’s vocabulary) of close to a million Indians, driven by poverty and desperation and hoodwinked by colonial traders, sailed through Kala Paani (Black waters) to unknown regions to work, sleep, eat and work, without any hope of ever returning to the motherland. They are known as the Gladstone coolies.


This Diaspora was long forgotten, until writers like V S Naipaul began chronicling their stories in the 1960s in novels such A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mystic Masseur, both set in the Caribbean. They not only sought to write about the past, but also to renew their bonds with the motherland that had forsaken them. The initial results were searing narratives, such as Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. In later years, Naipaul’s tradition was carried forward by writers such as Rohinton Mistry and M G Vassanji, among others.

Meanwhile after independence, many of Indian doctors, engineers and scientists left for higher education and better job opportunities to North America, Europe, and Australia. Subsequently Indian laborers headed to the Gulf countries and South East Asia.


A new exodus of technically educated Indians to the great capitals of capitalism in the 1990s saw the emergence of what Lal calls the “Dollar Diaspora.” As the profile of Indian technology professionals, especially in the Silicon Valley grew, with many becoming leading high tech entrepreneurs, they transformed the image of Indians all over the world. After the dotcom bust, many technology professionals returned to India, almost 25,000 between 2001-2004, according the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), sparking India’s own economic boom.

Indians became one of the forces to flatten the world, in Thomas Friedman’s famous turn of the phrase in the book The World is Flat. With the globalization of national economies, the chutnifaction of cultures and Bollywood’s increasing cultural appeal and reach, the new and old Diaspora began to both converge and diverge.

Today, there is hardly a major country in the world that does not have an Indian community. From politics to business to cuisine to cinema and fashion, Indians and the Indian Diaspora have become a global force. In the United States alone, Indians are the most highly educated and affluent ethnic group. Chicken tikka masala has displaced fish and chips as the national dish in Britain.

The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora seeks to capture this world. Here you will discover Edward Peters from Goa, who sparked off the gold rush in New Zealand in 1853 though he never got credit for it.  And that female Indian migrants are among the best-educated minority groups in most societies in the world.


Professor Brij Lal of Australian National University, general editor of the volume, says the book recounts the “lived experiences” of Indian communities around the world.  The encyclopaedia, produced at an estimated cost of $1.6 million, offers a panoramic insight into the movement and development of 44 Indian communities all over the world, through 30 thematic chapters, comprising over 350,000 words, 800 illustrations and 140 maps, tables and figures.

Balaji Sadasivan, Singapore’s senior minister of state for foreign affairs, says, “The Indian Diaspora is increasingly perceived as an intrinsic part of the bigger story of humanity’s drift toward globalization, transnational economic and cultural flows, and hybrid forms of socio-cultural identity.”

The Indian Diaspora

• The total population of the Indian Diaspora is over 20 million

•  It is the most widely dispersed Diaspora

•  The largest Indian Diaspora communities are found in Malaysia (1.8 million in 2000), USA (just over 1.7 million in 2000), Saudi Arabia (1.5 million in 2001), UK (just over 1 million in 2001) and UAE (950,000 in 2001).

• India receives a higher level of remittances ($23 billion in 2004) from abroad than any other country, primarily from the Middle East, North America and Europe.

• Indian born residents in the US are the most affluent ethnic group in the country.

• Many members of the Diaspora are leaders in global commerce and trade, international public service and diplomacy, the professions and academia. Examples include Sabeer Bhatia, Lakshmi Mittal, Professor Meghnad Desai, Professor Amartya Sen, T A Krishnan (Malaysia), Sir Anerood Jagnauth (Mauritius), Ujjal Dosanjh (Canada), S Sami Velu (Malaysia), Vijay Singh (Fiji), V S Naupail, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, M Night Shyamalan, etc.  

Overseas Indians maintain a strong social, emotional and economic bond with the mother country. For example, the encyclopedia quotes a Guyanese girl Boodhia who has never been to India and probably never will, but nevertheless longs for the land of the Hindi movies she watches in a language she cannot understand. Or take the example of the proud Indian Mauritian who wept at the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination as if he had lost someone in his own family.

But the Indian diaspora is not just about emotion. Every year it remits billions of dollars to India – an estimated $23 billion in 2004.

The idea of this hreference volume germinated at an academic workshop in 2001 and found considerable enthusiasm amongst many prominent Indians, including Singapore’s President Nathan.

Lal is general editor of the encyclopaedia, which has entries from 60 scholars in 15 countries.
Lal, himself the grandson of an indentured laborer, said that the book offers “deep and enriching insights into the actual lived experience of the Indian Diaspora.”


Brij Lal on the overseas Indian identity

Brij V. Lal, editor of the Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora is professor of Pacific and Asian History at Australian National University.

The Indian Diaspora has been growing in influence for some time now, so why wasn’t this phenomenon celebrated before?

The important thing to bear in mind is the consciousness of an Indian Diaspora. It’s fairly recent and it developed in the 80s and 90s. It began with the massive migration of people from India to Silicon Valley, to UK, and other places.

You already had Indians living in the Caribbean and so on and so forth. They had individual histories but there was not this kind of an attempt to connect all of it together.

I think the growth of the Indian Diaspora, the Dollar Diaspora, so to speak, and the availability of funds and money – I mean, you know, Citibank was able to sort of subsidise it (the encyclopedia). We are talking about close to a million dollars involved.  And, the financial support, the institutional support, and the timing were right.

So you think it is because of the growing interest in the Indian Diaspora?

Definitely. It is because of the growing interest in the contribution that the Diaspora is making, particularly after opening up of India, and a high level committee of (the year) 2000 under L. M. Singhvi who went out and said how can India tap into the NRI resources, just as China’s development was fuelled by the investment of overseas Chinese. So, India said let me also milk the NRI cow. Hai na? (Isn’t it?). So there was interest from India as well – The Parvasi Bhartiya Diwas, the opening of the ministry (for Overseas Indians) itself. Every year January 9 is the Parvasi Bhartiya Diwas. So, the consciousness in India itself on how we can use the Diaspora was there. So it was a confluence of factors.

In many societies, there is this divergence between the old and the new Diaspora. Is this going to grow or is this going to go away in future?

No, I don’t think so. I think you put your finger on a very important thing, and the important thing is that one should not think of the Indian Diaspora in the singular. One should think of the various strains of the Indian Diaspora. You have got people who have descended from the Indenture system, from the Kangani system here (in Singapore) to those who have gone straight to England to 4th and 5th generation children born in the UK. So it’s a complex series of circles, which intersect at some points and move away at others. The phrase I use is convergence and divergence. 

Sometimes I feel that you as a person from India and I have something in common – language, food, faith, culture – but there are also other points where you and I don’t see eye to eye. I have much more in common with my Pacific Island friends, my Fijian friends. But I think there are some points that Indian Indians don’t seem to understand, for example, the historical and cultural circumstances, which have produced people of the old Diaspora. And there is an element of friction that I notice and read about. Sometimes it comes out in a patronizing sense about the old Diaspora, you know like you have lost your culture, lost your language and so on. And perversely, on the other side, they (the old Diaspora) also look at Indians with their sort of preoccupation with hierarchy and horoscopes and things like that. So there is sometimes mutual misunderstanding which one hopes will end.

Do you think that cultural industries like Bollywood are trying to fill some gaps between the divergence and convergence of the new and the old Diaspora?

I think the Bollywood movies are now beginning to address themes. There are films like Baghban, Dev and Page 3. These movies are now beginning to treat themes, which resonate in the experience of the Diaspora. I mean all those days of dancing and prancing around trees, that doesn’t play out any more.
And the literature – it is very important. We are producing literature of first class order and people are able to respond. Who would have thought that a novel about a poor, illiterate man, struggling to become a writer would have won the Nobel Prize?

That is Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas (1961)?

Yes, exactly. There is another guy who is just as brilliant – M G Vassanji from East Africa (born in Kenya, lives in Canada). His The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (2003) is beautiful. There is another one called The Book of Secrets (1994). It is a fantastic book.

You know there was a time when literature was being produced in the great metropolitan center-London and New York. Now the empire is writing back. That is important. 

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