A Study of the Indian Diaspora: Presence in the Global South

Part - I

A study of the Indian Diaspora - Presence in the Global South - Part I m

On 24th April 2022, while addressing the Indian diaspora in Singapore, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla described the key role of the diaspora as a “powerful force” in India’s Look East policy. Asserting that the diaspora is essential to catalysing bilateral relations and bridging the governments and communities of the home and host countries, he reiterated how the diverse contributions of the diaspora to Singapore’s comprehensive socioeconomic development laid the rubrics for longstanding bilateral cooperation. The presence of the Indian diaspora in the Global South has not received the political focus that their presence in the Global North has. The populous diaspora in the Middle East is a clear exception. The diaspora policies of preceding governments and the present Narendra Modi government seek to capitalise on the immense population of Indian migrants in blue-collar employment across the Middle East, as their remittances not only support the Indian economy and balance of payments but they also account for a large portion of rural and peri-urban household income. When members of impoverished families in such areas emigrate to the Middle East, the funds they send back home allow their families to afford food and water, housing, healthcare, and education, significantly reducing their dependence on government welfare schemes, thus lessening government social expenditure. Prime Minister Modi’s sustained efforts to engage with the diaspora in the Middle East are therefore understandable. Elsewhere across the Global South, the history of diasporic migration has been different. A large section of the contemporary Indian diaspora in the Caribbeans, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa, for instance, are descendants of those transported under indentureship during colonial rule. For several decades, these Indians separated from their home country and found it difficult to construct an Indian identity because, for most, the home country was an imaginary memory held by their ancestors. Where Indians migrated to the Global North for better education and employment opportunities, those trends differ for the diaspora in the Global South. The Indian government has recently augmented efforts to engage with the Girmitiya youth through a variety of programmes to educate them about the culture and history of their homeland and encourage them to act as informal ambassadors in the relations between their host countries and India. This article aims to analyse the presence of the Indian diaspora in the Global South. It is divided into two parts. In Part I first, it will study the history of the diaspora in Central and Latin America, focusing on lesser-known diasporas and their role in developing bilateral relations. Second, it will review the history of the diaspora in the Caribbeans, focusing on Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Diaspora in Central and Latin America

The diversity in Central and Latin American countries may be explained by the variances of economic development, the density of population, racial and ethnic characteristics of the population, and the nature of politics and governance. Though this region has seen significant migration from Europe, Africa, and Asia for five centuries, the presence of the Indian diaspora is much lesser-known. However, contemporary developing trade relations between India and Latin America indicate that migration flows may increase in the future. Data is scarce on the history of the Indian diaspora in Latin America. Scholars believe, however, that the first waves of migration may be traced to the middle of the nineteenth century when Indians arrived in Panama for the construction of the Panama Canal and the railways. Presently, an estimated 5000 persons of Indian origin and NRIs residing in Central America, primarily from northern and western India are engaged in wholesale and retail trade. Belize (formerly British Honduras) was also a British colony, where Indians first migrated from the neighbouring Caribbeans to work in sugar plantations under indentured labour. As their contracts expired, they integrated into society, married with locals, and settled permanently, eventually losing their language and religion. The Indian diaspora in Belize currently comprises 5% of the population, inhabiting rural communities, and the majority having acquired citizenship. The recent influx of the diaspora into Belize may be traced to the 1950s, and more continued to migrate as both countries increased their technical cooperation through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme since 1995-96. Around 450 to 500 Indian diaspora inhabit Guatemala, descendants of indentured labourers migrating between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, well-integrated into the local community, and generally engaged in fishing, agriculture, and tourism. Indians have a visa-free entry into the country, and the diaspora population is gradually increasing. There are several Indian families in Ecuador, mainly in Guayaquil and Quito, in small businesses or as employees of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). TCS facilities around Montevideo in Uruguay also employ the only Indians in the country, numbering around 60 individuals. Though the diasporic community in Costa Rica is small, consisting of professionals, businessmen, and NGOs, there is some interest in Indian history and cultural heritage, pioneered by Hilda Chen Apuy, a Costa Rican scholar of mixed descent. Several monuments of Gandhi have been constructed by the small population – 1500 – of Indians in Chile, generally concentrated around Santiago. Though the diaspora in Peru consists of only around 285 traders and businessmen, the numbers are gradually increasing as Indian pharmaceutical firms like Ranbaxy, Intas, and Ipca Laboratories institute functioning branches there. The Indian Missionaries of Charity and other Christian organisations in the cities of Lima, Chimbote, and Puno, and spiritual organisations of Brahma Kumari or Sai Baba have proliferated across the country as local interest in Indian culture – religion, yoga, philosophy, and Bollywood – facilitated by the Peru–India Friendship Association. The two countries also have several bilateral agreements in science, IT, trade, and culture. There are around 50 Indian families in Venezuela mostly concentrated around Caracas, generally East Indian, and working as businessmen, professionals, and academics. Indian festivals are organised by the Indian Embassy and the Indian Association of Venezuela, and there are several spiritual centres, yoga centres, and temples instituted by Sai Baba, ISKON, Brahma Kumari, and Radha Swami organisations. A 2001 government health regulation recognised Ayurveda as an alternative system of medical treatment. Cathedra Libre (India Chair or Study Centres) in the University of Los Andes (ULA) in Merida in 2006 and in the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas in 2007 were initiated by the Indian Embassy, which teaches a permanent course on the ‘Thought of Mahatma Gandhi’, has published his autobiography in Spanish, and has Memorandums of Understanding with Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Delhi. Latin America and India are also connected by their passion for football, especially as many Latin American (mainly Brazilian) footballers play in Indian football clubs. Brazil shares many similarities with India in terms of population, politics, economy, and culture, and, as one of the fastest developing economies in the region, forms the grouping BRICS alongside India, Russia, China, and South Africa. The cordial relations between the two countries, beginning with the opening of the first diplomatic mission in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, and the Indian Consulate General in the commercial and industrial hub in 1996, also has a historical basis, as both Brazil and Goa were former Portuguese colonies. A variety of bilateral agreements have been formulated in the infrastructure, oil and natural gas, civil defence, agriculture and allied sectors, and bilateral trade has witnessed significant growth, culminating in the formation of a bilateral Trade Monitoring Mechanism (TMM) for periodic consultations and a Chamber of Commerce in Sao Paulo. Major Indian pharmaceutical companies like Ranbaxy Laboratories, Strides Acrolab, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, and Glenmark Pharmaceuticals have set up subsidiaries in Brazil and have begun to amass success after the initial expenditure of setting up in a new market. The diaspora consists of approximately 1000 individuals – mostly professionals, scientists, businessmen, and researchers in agriculture and physics, mainly inhabiting Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Manaus. There is significant interest in Indian culture and philosophy, evidenced by the proliferation of yoga centres and organisations like Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCON, Satya Sai Baba, and Bhakti Vedanta Foundation instituted across the country. India and Brazil have also signed bilateral agreements to allow diplomatic and official Indian passport holders a visa-free stay for 90 days, and India is one of the most prominent countries for immigrants to Brazil. Mexico and India share common problems of illegal migration, drug and human trafficking, and poverty. Aimed at developing the nascent IT sector, Mexico has strengthened its bilateral relationship with India to attract IT companies through subsidiaries and clients into the Mexican market since mid-2000s – starting with Sasken via its client Texas Instruments – strategically based around Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. The city’s developing infrastructure and proximity to the American hubs of engineering and talent and its reputation as one of the safest in the country have attracted companies like Aricent, Infosys and Wipro, facilitated by initiatives like Program for the Development of the Software Industry (PROSOFT), Research and Technology Innovation Park (PIIT), and Soft Landing Program by the Mexican government.

Though the Indian government had set up an integrated programme ‘Focus: LAC’18’ in November 1997 to promote trade with Latin America, the constraints of distance, language barriers, and absence of direct economic shipping and air links have limited trading ties. Trade with Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama have increased in recent years – constituting 90% of the total trade in the region, with 80% of Indian exports classified into textiles, engineering and chemical products. Indian software and pharmaceutical companies have entered the markets of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico, and various Latin American governments have expressed interest in the Indian IT sector. India also signed a framework agreement with MERCOSUR (a large trading bloc forming a South American common market comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Bolivia) in June 2003, termed the ‘India-MERCOSUR Preferential Trade Agreement’. Coming into force on 1st June 2009, it allows around 450 items from both sides a 10% to 100% reduction of duty, and efforts are underway to broaden it and further link it with the India–Brazil–South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral as well. The Brazil–South Africa–India–China (BASIC) is an informal grouping consulting and coordinating collective strategies in multilateral environment-related negotiations. Trade volumes with Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela based on fuel and commodity imports (crude oil, edible oil, and copper) and exports of pharmaceuticals, IT, engineering goods, and textiles have increased in recent years, and Indian companies like Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and private sector organisations like Reliance, Videocon, and Gammon India have invested in oil and gas fields in the region. The two-way trade between India and Latin America falls below the $40 billion mark but is confined to a few products and requires diversification and engagement. This was the focus of Modi’s first speech at the BRICS Summit after his election in 2014. 72% of Latin American exports to India are extractive products, 19% in agricultural products, and 9% in industrial manufactures. Imports from India are dominated by industrial manufactures and extractive products as well. Opportunities for cooperation between both regions in agriculture, aerospace, and renewable energy are growing and must be explored by both governments through rapprochement in trade and investment relations. Indian companies are gradually establishing a presence in Latin America, most prominently, the Aditya Birla group, which generates $2 billion in revenue from the region through aluminium production, and viscose yarn manufacturing. The Indian agribusiness company UPL Limited generates 26% of its income from Latin America, with Brazil accounts for a bigger market than the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (excluding India). Indian engagement is also flourishing in the energy sector, with the country accounting for 50.1% of the region’s energy exports to Asia in 2013 and the region’s share of total oil imports from India increasing from 4.5% in 2003 to 20% in 2014. Scholars envision a more robust commercial engagement between both the regions, based on their increasingly affluent middle class and ambitions of diversification, and bridged by the growing diaspora population.

Diaspora in the Caribbeans 

The presence of Indian migrants in the Caribbeans may be traced to 1838, when Indian girmityas (agreement signatories) were compelled under the indentured labour system to migrate across the kalapani (black waters) to the British, French and Dutch colonies in the region. Between 1838 to 1920, more than 5 lakh Indians were sent to plantation colonies on five- or ten-year contracts, with only one-third returning after their tenures. Their descendants form substantial populations scattered around the region – in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and other smaller Caribbean States – with some twice-migrating to the Netherlands (from Surinam, for instance) or elsewhere in the Global North instead of returning to India. The size of the diaspora in Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam has also increased substantially in the post-indenture period, with them constituting the largest ethnic groups in these countries and playing key roles in every sector of the economy – agriculture, business, and services – and the political arena. The eighteenth and nineteenth-century waves of migration from India, elsewhere in Asia and Africa were an outcome of the abolition of slavery in the colonial empire – in the British territories between 1834 and 1838, and in the French and Dutch territories also – which created labour shortages in the Caribbean region and necessitated that a migration scheme is installed to import cheap plantation labour from other colonies, especially India. The cost of recruitment, training, and disciplining the migrants was evenly distributed between the planters and the colonial States, and the ‘Coolie Ordinances’ were promulgated in the 1840s, which shaped migration flows and regulated every aspect of the private and public lives of migrants. Governments of the sending British (and other) colonies also provided various financial assistance for transportation, medical care, and legal assistance to facilitate the import of labour. In Surinam, in 1879, for instance, an ‘immigration fund’ covering the transportation costs of migrants to and from India and other expenditures such as the payments to recruitment agents and issuing of loans to planters to meet the costs of housing, food and medical care for the migrants, was set up. The British Indian government formulated a variety of legislations and agreements with the governments of the receiving territories to facilitate the emigration of labour, such as the 1861 convention between the French and the British for the regularisation of emigration from India to French colonies in the Caribbean, or the 1870 agreement with the Dutch Parliament to bolster the immigration of Indians to the Caribbeans. Officials such as a British Consular Agent, Protector of Emigrants, Emigration Agent, Medical Inspector of Emigrants for the three ports of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay, were appointed by the British Indian government to better assist and inform the indentured labourers during the emigration process. As colonial sugar planters were allowed to recruit Indian labour independently, fixed wages and a code of conduct were articulated, and the migrants were allowed the option of signing the contract for another five years in exchange for a promise of a free or subsidised return passage to India at the end of the combined period of ten years, working as paid labourers on the plantation estates or acquiring land to create a livelihood as a peasant farmer in the colony itself. This plantation diaspora was first reported in Mauritius in 1834 and British Guiana (presently Guyana) in 1838, Trinidad and Jamaica in 1845, and Dutch Guiana (presently Surinam) in 1873, comprised primarily of low-skilled, poor peasants from northern India and relatively less from southern India. They endured exploitative, slavish conditions, with no protections for their rights and dignities and no procedure for grievance redressal. Some were convicted for violating colonial labour labours, and some committed suicide. The officials appointed, even the magistrates, due to their racial and class proximity to the colonialists, favoured the planters and rarely supported the labourers. These migrants were pushed by the economic hardships at home and the lure of better employment in the Caribbeans, with recruiters deliberately misinforming them about the names of certain places – Surinam pronounced and interpreted as Sri Ram – to appeal to Indians in various social contexts. The desperate socioeconomic conditions in the home country were exacerbated by hardships at the depots – waiting several weeks and during months-long journeys where diseases like cholera and malaria led to high mortality rates. However, the grave exploitation, poor living conditions, and racial discrimination did not persuade much of the diaspora to return to India after the completion of their contracts. Most renewed their contracts and remained on the plantation or settled in the countryside with small properties. Even those who had availed of free passage back after the expiration of their contracts preferred to remigrate to the plantations into indentured labour again because of the unemployment, poverty, ostracism, and social exclusion that they endured in India. Their decision to remain in the host countries may also be explained by the settlement policies of the governments of the Caribbean States, which allowed those with good track records who remained in the colonies with subsidised and free land in their chosen countries. Scholars assert that these migrants were compelled to emigrate not only by the colonial rulers but also by the inequality they saw at home. Most were from the lower castes, without any prospects of social mobility into better standards of life. The Caribbeans promised a better (and relatively freer) future for themselves and their descendants; those that settled continue to play an important role in the economic development of these countries and in their sports and culture as well. After decades of protests registered by various nationalist leaders like Gandhi for the rights of the migrants, demanding better working and living conditions, the practice was finally proscribed by the British Indian government in 1917.

Indian indentured labourers were first brought to Guyana in 1838, and an estimated 2.3 lakh migrated between then and 1917, 85% of whom were from northern India’s United Province and Bihar and about 5% from southern India. They emigrated to escape the extreme poverty, indebtedness, famines, diseases, and social discrimination they endured at home, and though they faced similar conditions and limited rights in the plantations, they were allowed to procure a ‘certificate of exemption from labour’ after the completion of their contract and ten years of residence, which would allow them free or subsidised passage to India. One-third (35% or 75808 individuals) availed the return passage, and the rest comprised 38.9% of the total Guyanese population in the late 1800s and early 1900s – with the population increasing threefold between 1831 and 1931. Chronic malaria caused the population of migrants to increase slowly till the 1940s; subsequently, a major demographic shift occurred after the eradication of the disease in the late 1940s, increased the proportion of Indians to 47.7% of the total population in 1960. This declined to 3.3 lakh or 44% of the total population in 2002, partly due to the low fertility and high death rates in Guyana and partly due to the emigration of the Guyanese population to other countries in the Global North. Hindus constitute the majority (28.4%) of the diaspora population, followed by Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Anglicans. The diaspora has contributed crucially to Guyana’s social, economic, and political life and has shifted from sugar plantations to rice cultivation and cattle rearing, predominantly concentrated in rural areas and engaged in agricultural activities. As they moved into urban areas, into professions like law and medicine, their participation in mainstream society – particularly the commercial and business sectors – also increased. They are also prominent in Guyanese politics, with Cheddi Jagan, a Marxist leader of Indian origin, influential in national politics for more than fifty years. In the late twentieth century, educated, highly skilled, and affluential Indo-Guyanese also migrated to Canada, generally settling in Ontario.

Indentured Indian immigration to Trinidad and Tobago began in 1845, and between then and 1917, a total of 143939 Indian migrants were transported from the Bhojpuri-speaking region of northern India (modern-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh), the aboriginal pockets of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, Madras, and the Calcutta hinterlands. The majority (85%) were Hindus belonging to the lower castes, and within thirty years, the diaspora constituted one-third of the total host country population. In the diverse population of Trinidad and Tobago, the primary social segmentation was based on skin colour between Indians and Creoles. Presently, people of Indian descent form the largest ethnic group in the country – 40% of the total population, according to the 2000 census. Driven by poor economic conditions in India, these indentured labourers travelled for ninety days (reduced to thirty to fifty days after the advent of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal), with several deaths due to malaria and three-fourths remaining in the host country after the completion of their contracts – fearing the social stigma attached to the crossing of the kalapani waters. Initially settling in barracks, these immigrants eventually inhabited villages on the outskirts of the plantations. Male migrants constituted most of the population before the 1870s, but changes in recruitment policies brought about demographic transformations. The families of the free Indian diaspora (after the completion of their contracts) increased significantly, as did their pursuit of alternative sources of income. They purchased land to settle permanently in their own villages, retained their traditional family structures, religion, and kin networks, and were encouraged by sugar mill owners to take over cane farming and provide cane at cheaper rates. They emerged as integral to the host country’s rural agricultural sector, and as cane farming became an important diaspora occupation, Indian cane farmers were accorded higher social prestige than other plantation labourers. In 2000, the Hindu diaspora constituted the second-largest religious group in Trinidad at Tobago (at 25.6%) and generally inhabited the Couva, Tabaquite, Tal Paro, Tunapuna, Piarco, Penal, Debe, Princes Town, and Siparia administrative regions. The sharp increase in the price of crude oil in the 1970s led to an economic crisis and to a wave of migration to North America, including many Indo-Caribbeans. Presently, the Indian diaspora is influential in agriculture, business, and the host country’s political landscape. Their occupational diversification began in the 1920s when some moved to towns and found employment in the small-scale retail sector. Some established small groups of businesses and improved their social rank and position through education and affluence. Large numbers had moved to urban areas by the mid-twentieth century, and by the 1970s, the local English-based dialect completely replaced Bhojpuri as the primary language. These immigrants (and their descendants) gradually entered mainstream politics, and many have held key positions in the government – with Basdeo Pandey, of Indian origin, becoming the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1995 to 2001.

Surinam became a plantation economy in the Dutch empire at the beginning of the eighteenth, populated mostly by slaves, and became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. Its diverse population consists of Hindustani or East Indian, Creoles, and Javanese diasporas. The abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies in 1863 led to a shortage of labour, and Surinamese planters brought Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, and inhabitants of other Caribbean territories to work in the fields and factories. When those numbers proved inadequate, labourers were recruited from British India, with the first batch of 399 Indian immigrants arriving on 5th June 1873 on the ship Lalla Rookh. Between 1873 to 1916, 34304 Indians emigrated to Surinam, and approximately one-third availed of their free right of passage back home after the completion of their contracts. In the host country, the diaspora encountered problems accompanying cultural and language barriers and was forced to work on the plantations without being afforded the time to acclimatise to the new climate. Many fell ill, and the lack of medical care led to most succumbing to their illnesses. Even so, Indians continued to migrate and settle there, which the Surinam government realised towards the end of the nineteenth century and promoted the permanent settlement of migrant Indians by offering land to those whose contracts had been completed. These favourable settlement policies resulted in most Indians gradually becoming small landowners, producing rice, vegetables, milk and fruits on their plots. Their population increased rapidly, and in 1923, they accounted for 23% of the colonial population, rising to 29% in 1939. The population continued to rise even after the proscription of the indenture system and increased five-fold in a period of forty-five years – with 142049 Surinamese Indians in 1970, comprising nearly 30% of the total population. Hinduism and Islam are the second and third largest religions, followed by 20% and 13% of the population in Surinam, respectively. Though some migrated to the Netherlands, the Surinamese diaspora has cultivated and retained deep cultural, emotional, and political links with their homeland.

In recent years, a different type of Indian diaspora has emerged in the region – skilled professionals like doctors and engineers who aim to utilise the Caribbean’s proximity to the developed world to access better opportunities. These diasporic groups eventually migrate to the USA, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the Caribbean, and though their numbers are small, they represent a diversity of sectors. In Barbados, for instance, demand-pull factors like typically higher salaries and quality of life attract Indian professionals to academia and the hospital industry, who eventually engage in circular migration with the region being one of many ports of call in their international career. The English-speaking British Virgin Islands attract more diaspora than elsewhere, with Indians working as spa personnel, chartered accountants, engineers, businessmen, managers, and medical technicians. For academics migrating to the region, the primary pull factor is the anticipation of more flexibility and operational freedom in research and course design and the belief that such experience and international exposure may be leveraged for better employment in the USA, UK, and elsewhere in the Global North. This is also what attracts fresh medical graduates from India – the opportunity to quickly and inexpensively learn operational skills before emigrating elsewhere.


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