Community Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora

Author:   Crispin Bates
Publisher:   New York: Palgrave
Reviewer:   Dr. Nisha

History of Migration and the Notions of Identity Formation in South Asia


Crispin Bates (eds) (2001) Community Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora, New York: Palgrave, ISBN 0-333-80046-X., xii, 319 pages.

The book “Community Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora” is a collection of essays based on the conference held at University of Edinburgh in 1997. This collection of essays consists some of the interesting papers with regard to the history, politics, and anthropology of migration in south Asian countries including, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as in various other foreign locations (like Fiji, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America) where South Asian communities moved during and after the colonial era.  It throws light on the link between migration, identity, and ethnic conflict from a comparative perspective, and addresses the role of share colonial experiences in making ‘communal’ solidarities and discord by highlighting the ‘divide and rule’ policy. The major aim of this book is to throw light on issues of identity and ethnic clashes amongst migrant communities by comparing them internationally and by obtaining both anthropological and historical perspective.  

This volume is a collection of twelve chapters. The first chapter is an introduction chapter which is written by the editor Crispin Bates. This chapter not only provides the summaries of all the contributions, but plethora of literature. In this chapter the particular focus is given on the possible meaning and emergence of communalism and community identity of south Asians. While discussing the emergence of communalism he also throws light on the socio-economic changes that return into the ethnic and communal conflict in many countries.

The second chapter of the book is dedicated to the historical ethnography of Fiji. The author John Kelly in his contribution describes the history of Fijian migrant identity from ‘coolie’ to ‘Indian’ and the resistant of Indian population to the communal space carved out for them by the British. John Kelly particularly focuses on the identity issues of Fiji communities.

 The third Chapter of the book is written by Ari Nave which is dedicated to provide the history of the creation of Mauritian identities. This chapter is primarily about the significance of historical contingency in understanding actual patterns of ethnic conflict, or the lack of thereof. However, the chapter on Mauritius contains sweeping generalisations and highly questionable definition of basic concepts such as culture, ethnic group, and identity. The author also tried to locate and explain the basic mechanism by which ethnic relations abide and tries to reduce this to a scientific formula. Thus, the author Are Nave in this chapter, while insisting that history has played an important role in the creation of Mauritian identities, does not explain this process in any detail. 

The fourth chapter of the book is about the development of communalism in East Africa written by Michael Twaddle. Michel Tweddle accounts on the development of communalism is emphasized on the issue of spatial segregation in the construction of social differences in the East Africa. He put forward his views with the historians like Prem Bhatia (1973) Robert Gregory (1993), and other East Asian Activists particularly Yash Ghai who believe ‘Asian exclusivity’ as a major cause of communal tension in East Africa. The author believes that social differences were created by the British officials by insisting residential segregation in the small towns of eastern and northern Uganda. The segregation was imposed based on the racial differences rather than religious grounds. Further, these differences were increased with the effect of urban segregation that was inserted by Devonshire Declaration of 1923 that excluded east African Asians both from rights of equal representation and from rural landholdings in African as well as white-settler occupied areas throughout the region. He argued that social estrangement only began by British officials that became the reason of subsequent conflict in the East Africa.

Chapter fifth is given by Ravi K. Thiara. The chapter talks about the ethnic identity of Indians in south Africa. The author provided the statistics of the Indian population living in the south Africa. This collection of essay provides a historical context of African and Indian relation since its inception. It addresses the historical and contemporary causes that have led to the attempts by Indians in south Africa to produce a collective ethnic identity. The chapter, in particular, argued that the history of discrimination and differences based on race, exclusive political organisation and extensive economic and political developments have been central to the evaluation of collective Indian identity. Further, it has highlighted the role of the state in the constitution of broader Indian identity, that enabled the successful execution of the ideology of racial separation. The chapter also explored the efforts of Indian Political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and other organisations to integrate Indians as a group and assist connections with the homeland government for political purposes. The chapter, further address the legacy and significance of violent incident between Indians and Africans for the expansion and elaboration of a collective ethnic identity.

Chapter sixth of this collection is written by Nira Wickremasinghe. The chapter talks about the migration, migrant communities in Sri Lanka. The author provides a historical background of Sri Lanka and describe the emergence of Sihala nationalism. He throws light on how the definition of the migrants changed from early 20th century when all ‘non-Aryans’ were seen as alien by proponents on Sinhala nationalism to a more complicated definition of the ‘other’ founded on scientific and enumerative criteria -like residency period or proof of intention to settle- in consonance with the ration and legal order that was implemented in colonial Ceylon. The chapter further explore that how both myths and apparatus of knowledge of the West combining to inscribe boundaries between communities and dividing them into migrants and sons of soil which led to the politics of exclusion and violence against the former (p.154).

Chapter seven is dedicated to explain the communal identity of south Indians in Malaysia. The author Amrit Kaur made an attempt to analyse the economic and social dimensions of change in Malaysia with the focus on particular themes including, the state and Indian labour migration, the economic role of south Indians in Malaysia, mainly in rubber plantation sector; and the ways in which identity was constructed and modified among Indians. He argued that the process of prescription and exclusion played an important role in the management of ethnic boundaries by the government in colonial Malaysia. A spatial separation of ethnic groups happened, every bit as pronounced as in East and South Africa. Encouragement was given furthermore to a distinct vocational segmentation of the workforce along ethnic lines. The process of identity construction amongst the Indian Coolie Migrants who came to work on the sugar, coffee and rubber plantation and government undertakings in the nineteenth century began with their definition by the colonial authorities vis-à-vis their Malyalam and Chinese counterparts.

Sumita Chatterjee in chapter eight described the issues of Indian women in Caribbean society. She made an attempt to reconstruct the gendered dynamics of migration in Trinidad during the period of 1845 and 1917 by reading official and non-official sources like newspapers, memoirs, female writer autobiography and oral interviews with the male and female of India. This chapter attempts to underscore not only simply the politics of this settlement but the gender politics of men’s and women’s efforts to carve the out the distinct and different, yet responsive social space in the period under the relationship when the problematic process of belongingness in an alien place began and continues to animate identity politics (p.207).

Chapter nine and ten addressed the issues of post partition migration. The author of the chapters, Karen Leondard and Mohhammad Waseem analyse the fate of the so called Muhajirs (Urdu speaking Muslims) from Hyderabad and the north of India who shifted in the new state of Pakistan after 1947.  The authors trace the issues of Muhajir from its inception pointing out how Muhajirs sought to identify the Pakistan nation with wider Islamic world, interrupting the two-nation theory as giving the Indian Muslims right to move to Pakistan and ignoring the loyalties within the country. It is generally believed that the religion (Islam) being the basis of the new state, all people including migrated Muslims from India would be equally welcomed and united more or less on the same basis. However, in this collection of essays the authors demonstrate that the psychological responses and the outcomes of migration can vary greatly depending on the material and social situations (P.28). They highlight the fact that those who migrated from Panjab to Pakistan integrated quite successfully, however people who came from further afield, from Bihar, north India, or the former independent princely state of Hyderabad, had more difficulties. Thus, the authors in this chapter highlighted the identity issues of migrated Muslims who were termed as ‘Muhajir’ and even more hostile term like Makkar, Locusts, in Pakistan.

Thomas Hansens’s essay in this collection is an anthropological account of migrant culture in contemporary Bombay. The author highlighted the role of external factors in identity formation, however, his focus not on the migrants so much as those left behind and the effect that remittances and the returnee migrants have on the culture at home. The purpose of the author is to identify the impact of globalization and of global horizons on the world-view of Muslim local community (P.31). While in last chapter Aminah T. Mohammad highlighted the relationship of Hindus and Muslim who migrated from India to United States for the work. The author points out a wide range of clashes and the labyrinthine growth of association. He explained the conflict particularly over the language issues of Hindi and Urdu speaking. Thus, the author in this chapter provides a detail account of the relationship of Hindus and Muslims and how the rift has developed between the Hindi/Urdu Speaking communities living in USA. He further explored the particular role of community leaders, and holds them responsible for much of animosity.

Overall, this collection of essays is optimistic in marking the agency and violation of migrants, their capacity to adapt- despite adversity and maintain new often unexpected identities independent of their forefathers and the prejudices of others. It has particular importance in the light of contemporary clashes in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Indian ocean, Indonesia, Fiji, and elsewhere amongst diasporic South Asian Communities. The book provides a historical background of the migration in south Asian countries with plethora of knowledge about the emergence of communalism, identity formation and relation between the communities. However, first two chapters in particular Kelly and Nave might discourage readers from carry on with the book because Kelly’s account on Fiji identities is blurred by the excessive jargon while Nave analysis on Mauritius contains over generalisation and highly questionable definition of basic concepts like culture, ethnicity, ethnic groups and identity.


Dr. Nisha completed Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India and now working as independent scholar with five year of research experience. Email:  [email protected]



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