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Indians migrated to America in the 18th century!

By Sheela Bhatt/
January 15, 2015 12:37 IST
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'We used to say two things are found everywhere: A potato and a Sikh. I think you can substitute Gujarati for the Sikh because Gujaratis are everywhere.'

Historian Vinay Lal, author of The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America, discusses the emergence of the Indian Diaspora on the world stage with Sheela Bhatt/

What is your take on the attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in making the Indian Diaspora a coherent entity?

The best place to begin is a short historical perspective. It is useful to remind our audience that the history of the modern Indian Diaspora begins in the 19th century.

Most people living in India, especially the educated middle class, generally think of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia when they think of the Diaspora.

But the earliest Diasporic population was not to be encountered in these places, but rather to be encountered in places like Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, South Africa and then subsequently, in the second half of the 19th century, in Malaysia and Fiji.

This Indian Diasporic population migrated to these far-flung parts in extraordinary circumstances.

Most of them went from Bihar, correct?

Well, yes! Mainly from the Bhojpuri-speaking belt. But there were also people who migrated from South India.

People who went to Malaysia were mainly from South India, that's why you can see the Tamilian influence still predominant in the Indian community in Malaysia.

In South Africa, they went from various places (in India). In South Africa, there is a distinction often made between 'Passenger Indians' and 'Coolie Indians.'

'Passenger Indians' paid their own passage. That would people like Mohandas Gandhi.

'Coolie Indians'' -- that's not my favourite term, but that's how they are described -- were those who went as indentured labourers.

In the 19th century, the bulk of Indians who go, go as indentured labourers. When we say indentured labourers, it is essentially a new form of servitude, a new form of slavery effectively.

They would go, there would be a five-year contract, then depending on the circumstances the contract would be renewed, and eventually over a period of time the person would become free.

Then many of these people would settle down.

People who went to places like Trinidad and Fiji effectively lost contact with India. We are talking about five or six generations.

I'll tell you a story which will give you an idea.

When I went to Fiji in 1999, as I was leaving the country, I took a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver was an Indo-Fijian. He asked where I was from. I said I was from India and he started speaking to me in Hindi/Bhojpuri, assuming that I knew it, which I did.

When I told him I was from India, he said, "Toh aap bhi kheti baadi karte honge (You too must be involved in farming)."

It is very astonishing because his forefathers had come as indentured labourers, farmers effectively, because Fiji had sugarcane plantations.

So, he assumed because I was an Indian and I was coming from North India, therefore my background was also rural, agricultural.

As far as he knew, none of his ancestors had gone back to India. That is the first part of the story, the Indian indentured migration to far flung parts of the world in the 19th century.

Now we get to the second part and that is the Indian Diasporic population in places like the United States, Canada and so on. I have done research that shows there were Indians living in the US in the 18th century.

I am absolutely certain of that, but you are talking about 4, 5 people maybe.

People taken by British merchants on ships, when they came to the eastern sea board of what would eventually become the United States.

The first real migration, relatively small, is in the 1890s. These are Indians who go to the west coast of Canada and the US and they go to places like Vancouver and British Columbia.

They are mainly Punjabis. Some of them worked their way down the coast and enter the United States, to places like Washington and go further down south to California.

Image: Newly indentured Indians in Trinidad and Tobago, 1897. Photograph courtesy:

What were they doing there?

Some of them were lumbermen because lumber is a big industry there and, of course, at this point in time the US was still 'developing.' So they work in the lumber industry, some of them are farmers.

Their numbers are going to be increasing gradually because there are students who start going to study at the University of California, to Berkeley to get higher degrees and they are going to be joined by a few professionals.

Then you get to the interesting part of the story, which is the Gadar movement, a revolutionary movement that starts taking root in the second decade of the 20th century.

The Gadar movement was a movement for Indian Independence, launched from the United States. The Gadar revolutionaries had trans-national links, connections in places like Tokyo, Europe etc.

It's an extraordinary story, but here again we are talking about a very small number of people.

Anti-Asian sentiment had already started in the early part of the 20th century. A race riot takes place in Bellingham in Washington state, directed against Indians, around 1907.

Anti-Asian sentiment broadly begins to increase and by 1923-1924, there is going to be an insistent demand that Asians be excluded. From 1924 until 1945, Indians are not permitted to enter the United States by law.

This is very important because many people have this mistaken impression of America as a land that always welcomed all immigrants, as a land of freedom, liberty etc.

But, of course, it is a highly misleading picture because apart from the fact that the US's white population committed genocide against American Indians and slavery was practiced for 300 years, there were immigrant groups that were discriminated against consistently.

In 1924, not just Indians, but all Asians are excluded by Asian exclusion laws. Indians could not buy property anymore. There were some Indians still there, predominantly men.

They had come as single men and what they would usually do before these Asian exclusion laws were put into place is they would go back to India, they would get married and they would get their brides with them.

After 1924, because of the Asian exclusion laws, if an Indian was to leave the US, he would not be permitted to re-enter. So their marriage prospects dry up. What do they do?

Many of them married Hispanic Catholic woman and that's a development over a community which is called Punjabi Mexican American. That is a whole community there. Now, from 1924 to 1945, they are completely shut out.

1945 to 1955, the USA permits 100 Indians per year. One of the reasons it made this small concession was because World War II was fought on the pretext that this was going to be an occasion to liberate people all around the world, that self-determination was important for all people.

If on one hand you are claiming self-determination and on the other hand you have racist laws, well, there is an obvious contradiction there.

So partly to fulfil this idea that World War II was fought to save the world for democracy, to give people self-determination, to mow down the threat of fascism, partly for all of these reasons, in 1945, the USA decided to relax the laws very nominally.

From 1945 to 1965, you have 100 Indians who are allowed every year and almost all of them are professionals.

In 1965, you get the sweeping legislation. Effectively, the system that you have today in the US is the system that goes back to 1965 with modifications.

That's where the new national quota system begins and that's when the Indians start coming to the US in a rather big way.

Image: A painter creates a portrait of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden in New York. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/


How do you see Modi's reception at Madison Square Garden in September?

Indians in the US share some characteristics with all minority groups, but there are some things distinct to them.

We need to understand what the profile of the Indian-American community is first.

Very briefly, it is the most highly educated community in the US. Likewise, they are the most affluent as well.

One should not think all Indians are well to do. Not at all!

Even going back to the 1920s and 1930s, when there were only a few thousand Indians, they were Indians at that time living in absolute poverty.

I have looked at the census data and discussed it in my book The Other Indians.

Similarly, there are Indians today who are not doing well at all in the US.

Of course, we don't like to hear about them in India because we like to imagine all Indians in the US are doing splendidly.

It is useful to keep that in mind because the middle class here is quite convinced that only in India do they not prosper because in India you have got bureaucracy, you have got all kinds of administrative obstacles and the question often asked in the Indian community among the middle class is why is it so that we do so well when we go abroad, but do so poorly back in India?

Not everyone is doing spectacular in the US either. Nonetheless, we can concede that the Indian community on the whole has done quite well.

Let us take the example of Gujaratis since Modi himself is a Gujarati. In Los Angeles, half the Indians, I would say, are Gujaratis. That's not true everywhere in the United States, but in LA and Southern California, the Gujarati element is predominant.

It is also widely known, at least to people who read a little bit, that there are certain industries or certain professions which have been captured by a certain immigrant community.

In the case of the Gujaratis, they have captured the hospitality industry. Almost 50 percent of all the motels in the US are owned by Gujaratis and that is a huge number.

So what happens is that once a group becomes a little bit successful in some particular profession or business or industry, then others are lured into it. And in the Indian case, this has happened in a very big way.

That's one reason why the Gujaratis have done really well. Of course, they use their entrepreneurial skills because the Gujaratis are one of the great Diasporic populations of the world.

We used to say two things are found everywhere: A potato and a Sikh. I think you can substitute Gujarati for the Sikh because Gujaratis are everywhere. They are a very Diasporic people, travelling and trading.

When most people think of Indian global culture, they invariably think of the US. They will think of the fact that the CEO of Microsoft is Satya Nadella. But Vinay Lal draws attention to the great writing, art and music that have been generated by those of Indian origin elsewhere, like the Caribbean. Photograph: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Is the Indian Diaspora turning into a force?

Not the Indians who are in Trinidad and Fiji, and Guyana and Surinam, but that is only if you are looking at it in political and economic terms.

What we have to understand is that the Indian Diaspora is a force in global culture today because in many of these parts of the world they have generated extraordinary forms of art, literature, music.

I don't think we know very much about it sitting in India. Most middle-class Indians when they think of the Indian Diaspora, as I said, they are thinking of the United States.

They are thinking of people who have entered the entertainment industry, the Miss America was an Indian American, Bollywood is expanding and so on. So they think Indian culture is now becoming a global force.

Let me add a few elements to the picture. If you go to the Caribbean, the Caribbean has generated a most extraordinary range of writing in the world. Many of these people are of Indian origin.

We, of course, know about V S Naipaul and his deceased brother Shiva Naipaul, but there was this very young writer, Harold Sonny Ladoo, who died when he was in his 20s, of Indian origin and came out of the plantation culture. He wrote one book No Pain Like This Body before he was murdered.

Cumulatively they have generated, in places like Trinidad, new elements of writing, art and music which are very much a part of global culture today.

However, when most people think of global culture, they will invariably think of the US.

They will think of the fact that the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, is a Telugu Brahmin.

If you were to look not just at India but sub-national groups in India, a lot of Telugu Brahmins are in a position of considerable power and eminence in US.

Now, obviously they have links back to India and in that sense you could say they are going to be a force.

Don't miss Part II of the interview next week!

Top image: A scene from Times Square, New York City.

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Sheela Bhatt/