Diaspora dynamics

Print edition : January 09, 2015

MARCH 1946: Jawaharlal Nehru arrives in Singapore, greeted by a crowd of Indians and other communities. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The author traces a complicated period in the evolution of Singapore and the diverse sociocultural configurations of the Indian diaspora there with remarkable clarity.

THE diverse factors that shaped the emergence of the Indian diaspora in the colonial period have aroused the interest of historians and anthropologists alike. While a sizable body of literature emerged in the early 1990s on the economic aspects of migration, linking it to colonial exploitation, more recent studies have brought out its sociocultural aspects. Some recent studies have focussed on the notions of hybridity, dislocation and transnationalism to outline the complex forces that shape the lived social realities of migrant experience.

Rajesh Rai’s Indians in Singapore 1819-1945 makes a significant contribution to this aspect. The book draws on the official and unofficial records available in the state archives in Britain, Malaysia, India and Singapore; newspaper reports; and observer accounts in the 19th century. The author conjures up an encyclopaedic view of the port city’s evolution through several turbulent periods in history, including the First World War. The book successfully traces the dynamic interaction between political events and sociocultural processes that shaped the lives of the Indian diaspora in Singapore and the emergence of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious urban space through varied interactions between diverse communities. The book is divided into three parts.

The first dwells on the period before the transfer of power from British Indian rule to the Crown. The second talks about the period following the transfer of power in 1867. The final part provides an insightful account of the Indian experience during the Japanese occupation of Singapore and questions much of the official history and the nationalist discourse around the historical developments during this period.

The author’s use of historical sources deserves special mention. Much of the interaction between the political externalities and the sociocultural formations in the port city are animated through references to newspaper reports. This is borne out in the chapter titled “Repression, Reform and Rebellion”, which provides an extensive account of the ways in which the colonial government selectively regulated religious processions, which were deemed a threat to colonial authority and power. The selective banning of colonial processions post-1867 is described using newspaper reports, which discuss how the colonial authorities stopped a Muharram procession “in anticipation of a fight between the Red and White Flag societies”. Subsequently, sterner regulations were put in place. These undermined the challenges to colonial rule from inter-ethnic collaboration between secret societies. A number of such underground societies across communities were trying to create resistance to colonial domination.

The most significant contribution of the book is its tracing of the contours of the sociocultural formations in a multi-ethnic urban space. The urban geography of a multi-ethnic, multicultural urban space is shaped by the interaction of a variety of forces. The history of the dynamic interaction of these factors helps us understand how diverse cultures coexist and shape the modern metropolitan city space. The chapter titled “In the Poly-Ethnic World of the Port City”, the author traces the sociocultural development of Indians from 1819 to 1867. He highlights a period of increasing occurrence of religious processions and formation of religious boundaries. However, these institutions had permeable boundaries and there was increased interaction between communities. Also, the geography of the port city was characterised by shrines, which were markers of the culture carried by the immigrants from their homeland.

The book adequately highlights the complex notions of hybrid identity fashioned by a notion of homeland. One of the primary concerns of diasporic literature has been the relationship between the homeland and the alien country and the multiple ways in which notions of home and an authentic culture shape that identity. Katy Gardner’s work on migration in Bangladesh touches upon the ways in which migration to West Asia influences and shapes religious identity in the towns and villages of Bangladesh. This book highlights the complex intersectionalities of multiple identities of caste, community and religion that shape new social formations in the diaspora.

What is remarkable is the way in which the author traces the influence of transnational political currents from across the world in shaping sociocultural configurations. This leads to a nuanced presentation of the colonial encounter and rejects any simplistic, binary configuration of oppressor and the oppressed in thinking about the Indian diaspora during a certain historical period in Singapore. Multiple identities emerge as a result of the interaction of diverse factors.

In the chapter titled “Diasporic Formations in the Inter-War Years”, the author traces the social formations vis-a-vis caste and religion that emerged across communities. He observes that among Indians, the caste system was preserved with minor modifications, and therefore, the existing social structures of the Indian villages were replicated. In addition to caste, Indians were also fragmented along the lines of regionalism. Besides religious formations, a number of associations were formed along the lines of linguistic and cultural identity. The author notes how despite the fragmentation along religious and cultural lines unities were forged at the political level. The island was not insulated from developments in India, especially from the fervour of Indian nationalism.

Subaltern view

The book also makes a valuable contribution to the discourse on nationalism by complicating the nationalist discourse of a period of history. Nationalism as a project of unification of disparate ethnic and religious communities has been a problematic project in most multi-ethnic postcolonial states. A sizable body of historical and ethnographic writing has looked at the enterprise of nationalism from the perspective of religious minorities and women, among other things. This book provides an alternative understanding of an important period in the Indian nationalist movement from voices that were hitherto not accounted for and complicates any simplistic understanding of participation in the war as a nationalist project. The third part of the book dwells on the Indian experience during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. It presents a subaltern view of the official history of the period by problematising assumptions of nationalistic fervour and the consequent participation of Indians in the Indian National Army (INA) formed under the supervision of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The author’s narrative undercuts notions of altruistic motives that inform the nationalist narrative. He shows how a number of Indians decided to join the INA to escape from forced labour on Japanese projects. Building up on the testimonies of soldiers recruited to the INA, the book argues that several of them felt that the demands made on them were “excessive”. It outlines an important aspect of the Indian nationalist project. The author highlights how pan-Indian unity, the bedrock of the nationalist project, was not entirely spontaneous but was “rather forced upon” the diaspora. This is a larger comment on the nationalist project and the way in which it fosters an imagined vision of the nation on a people who do not necessarily identify with it and who take part in the project because of a wide variety of individual motivations. The chapter historicises the movement by locating it in a larger socio-economic context. It describes a period of immense economic hardship characterised by malnutrition, scarcity and shortages of medical supply which impacted the diaspora.

The author traces a complicated period in the evolution of Singapore and the diverse sociocultural configurations of the Indian diaspora with remarkable precision and lucidity of expression. His language is free from jargon and unnecessary rhetorical flourishes. This book will be useful to historians, anthropologists and sociologists researching the socio-economic and political history of the Indian diaspora in Singapore.

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