By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics. In this article, he traces the history of South Asian migration, highlighting the ways in which this has benefitted host nations as well as importing disruptive religious, political and cultural beliefs and conflicts. He dreams of a borderless world where fundamentalisms and other forms of extremism are kept in check.
As a result of globalisation and increased access to employment and business opportunities, the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia have become popular destinations for Asian migrants. According to the 2021 Census in England and Wales, the category "Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh" accounts for 9.3% (5.5 million) of the overall population, up from 7.5% (4.2 million people) since the 2011 Census. Many South Asians choose to move to these countries in search of better living conditions, job security, and a safe environment. They contribute positively to the economy and also represent their unique cultures. However, it's essential to address some concerns, such as elements of religious extremism, which can disrupt the harmony and liberalism of these host countries.
A Brief Modern History of South Asian Migration
There were series of migrations after colonisation. South Asians, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, migrated to other countries, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and other colonised regions, primarily as plantation workers. In Western countries, mainly the elite class and scholars pursued their degrees. Over time, more businessmen and labourers began to travel to the UK, the US, the Gulf, and Canada. The number of South Asian immigrants increased significantly after the 1970s, as people sought refuge from civil unrest, poverty, riots, and economic challenges, while pursuing better opportunities and education.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many South Asians migrated to countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and other colonised regions, primarily working as plantation labourers, while members of the elite went to Western countries as students. Over time, an increasing number of businessmen and labourers began travelling to countries such as the US, the UK, Gulf nations, and Canada. There was a significant increase in the number of South Asian migrants from the 1970s onwards. Many people sought refuge from civil unrest, poverty, riots, and economic problems, and the opportunity to pursue a better life for themselves and their families.
From the 1980s onwards, the rise of the IT industry prompted many Indians with engineering degrees to migrate, both for employment and for further education. Favourable exchange rates between the rupee and Western currencies were an additional pull factor. To cite another particular example, the Telugu Language community sought alliances between their daughters and Indian communities already in the UK and US, believing they would provide safer lives for them. Regrettably, however, some individuals working in the US demanded dowries ranging from 750,000 INR to 1 billion INR.
Today, more Indians are moving abroad to take advantage of affordable universities, flexible visa options, job opportunities, and simplified immigration procedures. In the UK, new universities receive substantial grants from the government and, in some cases, they recruit students without requiring International English Language Testing System proficiency, prior experience, or other essential skills. These institutions are often known for providing pathways to part-time work exceeding the hours allowed by the government. This is creating a negative effect on other graduates who are worthy enough to be placed in a job.
The Economic Contribution of South Asians
Let's consider the example of the Middle East, often referred to as "the Gulf Countries" in Indian terminology. This region includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait. Many Indians, ranging from blue-collar workers to civil engineers, have migrated to these countries. Over time, merchants, business executives, and others have also chosen to make these countries their home. The Gulf Boom, a period of rapid economic growth and development that occurred in this region, primarily driven by the discovery and exploitation of vast reserves of oil and natural gas, coupled with unemployment in India, led to a substantial migration of people to these countries. People from Kerala, owing to historical ties and the relatively short travelling distance by sea and air, have shown a preference for settling in these Gulf countries. By 2008, the Keralite population in the region had reached 3.8 million.
In 2013, remittances sent by Keralites back to their Indian communities exceeded 600 billion rupees. Many Keralites have played a crucial role in driving the economic growth of the Gulf countries, transforming them into pivotal and wealthy nations. Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al Nahyan, the UAE Tolerance Minister, has remarked that "Keralites stand out with their hard work, skills, and knowledge, and they contribute significantly to the UAE's economy".
The Political History of South Asians Abroad
During the Indian Independence Movement (from the late 19th century to 1947), which aimed to free India from British colonial rule, many Indians residing in foreign countries actively contributed to the cause of Indian independence. These Indians, often referred to as the Indian diaspora or expatriates, played a significant role in advocating for India's freedom and raising awareness about the injustices of British colonialism. The Ghadar Party in the US and Canada, predominantly consisting of Central Punjabis, played a significant role. (The word "Ghadar" means "revolt" or "mutiny" in Punjabi.) India House in North London, led by Shyamji Krishna Varma, an Indian Freedom Fighter, was another important revolutionary centre. The Indian National Army was based in Singapore, led by Subhash Chandra Bose and Rash Bihari Bose. The Malaysia Indian Congress was established in Kuala Lumpur in 1946. These organisations made significant contributions to the Indian Independence Movement.
Political Prominence Today
Many South Asian-origin people have achieved prominent positions in various countries. These include:
Rishi Sunak, UK Prime Minister
Kamala Harris, Vice President of the USA
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, known as Tan Dhesi, British MP
Vivek Ramasamy, a Republican Party candidate for presidential elections in the USA
Upendra Chivukula, a Democrat Party politician
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, President of Singapore
Subramanyam Iswaran, the Transport Minister of Singapore
Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam (better known as K. Shanmugam), the Home Affairs Minister of Singapore
Wavel Ramkalawan, the President of Seychelles
Prithivi Raj Singh Roopun, the President of Mauritius
and many other former and present heads of states, as well as individuals in higher positions in Mauritius, Suriname, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana.
The Cultural Impact of Indians and South Asians Abroad
To take one example, in the 19th and 20th centuries many Tamils and other south Indians began migrating to the Malay Peninsula. Most were labourers who worked on plantations and the railways. Merchants, priests, moneylenders, and others, arrived to support the South Indian community and contribute to better standards of living. Many of these labourers initially arrived in Malaya on multi-decade contracts. As they settled, they brought with them their religious idols, kitchen items, ingredients, and more. Since they worked on plantations, each plantation often had its own local deity, temple, or mosque where they would pray. For example, there were deities such as Maa Kateri in Klang, Nagarathan Sivan in Penang, Maha Mariamman, Muniyadi Muni, Madhura Veeran, and many others. Notably, the festival of Thaipusam, primarily celebrated in Southeast Asian regions, became an important cultural event. This Tamil community also influenced the local cuisine, leading to the adaptation of dishes such as Puttu, Prata, Rojak, Tea, and Satti Sorru, which incorporated elements from the Malay environment.
When I visited Singapore I ordered Indian tea, expecting it to be served in a normal cup, but to my surprise, it came in a glass the size of a palm. I deduced that Indian tea had become a favourite among laborers, as they believed it helped them throughout the day, and this tradition has endured. Singapore and Malaysia have since developed into prosperous nations where Dravidian (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) cultures, primarily Tamil, have become integral and pivotal forces. Cultural integration has contributed to the attractiveness of many countries, where South Asians are now emerging as a pivotal force.
The Influence of Religion
20th century Indian social reformers Periyar Ramasamy and B R Ambedkar both observed that Indians carry their caste system and superstitions with them, and would do so even if they were to reach the Moon. In the Malaya region, there have been instances of caste discrimination and occasional clashes within the South Asian communities and with Muslims. South Indians have historically been known for their secular and religiously harmonious values compared to the northern part of India. Both historically and today, festivals are celebrated in an inter-religious manner, and people from various faiths participate in the worship of different religious figures.
Sadly, there are also instances of radical fundamentalism from some conservative groups. Certain conservative and religiously-radicalised North Indians, especially from Gujarat, Haryana, and Punjab, and notably Brahmins, are known for propagating the Hindutva fascist ideology and inciting hatred against Muslims and Christians. Muslims from Pakistan, radical segments in Hyderabad, Malappuram, Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka's Ampara region have been accused of involvement in Islamic fundamentalism. Some Sikhs who left India during the Anti-Sikh Riots in the 1980s settled in Canada, the US, and the UK, and are known for supporting Khalistani separatist movements. Religious fundamentalism of any kind poses a grave threat to liberty, equality and peace across the globe.
In the UK, a man of Pakistani origin named Anjem Choudhary is alleged to have made disturbing comments in which he claimed that his group would destroy Buckingham Palace and establish a mosque there, while implementing Sharia law. In some regions of East London, a group known as the Muslim Patrol, with connections to Anjem Choudhary, have engaged in "moral policing" on the streets of East London. They are said to have threatened people drinking alcohol, gay couples, women in comfortable clothes, and non-believers.
In the US, there have been instances of inhumane treatment of innocent Muslims and their detention under terrorism-related acts. The US has been criticised for military action in Islamic countries, including the bombing of civilian areas, often justified under the goals of counter-terrorism and liberal interventionism. It has also experienced multiple terrorist attacks, with some of the perpetrators, such as students and other civilians, having lived in the US for extended periods. In and had received training in Pakistani madrasas, often posing as Islamic schools. This illustrates how ordinary students can be radicalised by extremism under the guidance of South Asian clerics. Some of them travelled to Syria to participate in the civil war on the side of ISIS.
"Khalistan" is a term used to refer to a proposed independent Sikh state that some Sikh separatist groups have advocated for in the Punjab region of India, in the north of the country. The term "Khalistan" is derived from two Punjabi words: "Khalis," meaning pure, and "Stan," meaning land or state, so it roughly translates to "Land of the Pure."
In 1971, Jagjit Singh Chohan, an unsuccessful Indian politician, moved to the UK to start a campaign fo rthe creation of Khalistan. An appeal in the New York Times resulted in him receiving millions of dollars from the Sikh diaspora. Following Indira Gandhi's launch of Operation Blue Star, aimed at eliminating Khalistani terrorists, a large number of Khalistan movement members left for Canada, Germany, the US, and the UK. A group known as Babbar Khalsa, primarily originating in Western countries, is believed to have engaged in the financing of terrorism, radicalisation, recruiting Sikh youth, procuring small arms and explosives, and planning and executing terrorist activities. Sikh terrorists were responsible for the infamous bombing of Air India Flight 182, resulting in the loss of 329 lives, as well as a bombing at Narita International Airport in Japan and other acts of violence and disruption in Western countries. Reports suggest that some gurdwaras served as sites for the mobilisation of the Sikh diaspora in support of the Khalistan movement, with some gurdwaras hosting Khalistani leaders and other speakers who encourage the movement. In February 2009, BBC Radio 4 reported that militant groups were receiving funds from the British Sikh community. The same report concluded that Babbar Khalsa sent individuals to terrorist training camps in Pakistan, some of which were later used by Al Qaeda. Steve Bassam (Lord Bassam of Brighton), the then Home Office Minister, stated that members of the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) posed a national security threat and they were listed as a proscribed terrorist group. This group was thought to have received funding from Sikhs outside India, and it attracted young radicals to the Khalistan movement. It is believed that there are still hidden groups working towards the separation of Khalistan, causing significant concerns for India and Western countries due to the activities of Khalistani radicals.
Hindu fundamentalism is rarely covered in mainstream media in India, with only a few incidents, such as the Ram Mandir Movement in Ayodhya and the Godhra Riots in 2002, where Hindus played central roles in the disturbances, receiving significant media attention. Hindu fundamentalism did, however, come to global prominence with the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India. The Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS), an international branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and affiliates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have established a presence in Western countries, propagating the philosophy of Hindutva, a philosophy often associated with Hindu supremacy, to non-resident Indians and their children. Many upper-caste North Indian-origin citizens in Western countries send their children to education camps under the guise of promoting Indian culture. However, these children are exposed to brainwashing involving casteism, anti-Muslim sentiments, and aggressive Hindu supremacist ideologies. There is a group called BJP Overseas Friends which garners support from Hindus in America and other Western countries for its ideology. Recent events, such as the Leicester riots in 2022, Hindu support for anti-Muslim rallies in the US, and attacks on Sikhs in Australia, have shed light on the cruelty of Hindutva politics. Hindus in Western countries have attempted to influence election outcomes by supporting candidates based on their Hindu identity. Additionally, many UK Members of Parliament from the Conservative Party have ties to HSS. HSS is known for inviting anti-Muslim and anti-democratic rights politicians to Western countries, where they deliver speeches that further propagate these ideologies. With the support of HSS, some Indian organisations hold rallies in support of Modi, Hindutva, Yogi Adityanath (the radical Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh), and festivals with slogans like "Jai Shree Ram," "Bharat Mata ki Jai," and "Mullo ko hatao" (Hail to God Ram, Hail to Mother India, and Expel the Muslims). These activities often foster victimhood narratives, such as claims of population downsizing, discrimination, job losses to other communities, and the erosion of their religion. It is believed by some political commentators that the Gujarat Riots in 2002, which implicated RSS-BJP and its affiliates in the massacre of Muslims, were funded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus) of America. When Seattle passed an ordinance against caste discrimination, the Hindu American Association protested the bill and criticised politicians for dividing Hindus. Equality Labs, an organisation which focuses on addressing caste discrimination within the South Asian diaspora, reports that within the Dalit population (1.5% of the Indian population), 60% have experienced discrimination, and 27% have faced attacks from upper castes. Discrimination against Dalit female engineers has also been reported at major tech companies such as Google, Cisco, and Microsoft. The construction of the Akshardham temple in New Jersey involved Dalit labourers working for up to thirteen hours a day for lower wages than contracted. In September 2023, the state of California passed a bill banning all forms of discrimination based on caste. Recently, an Australian MP has raised concerns about Hindu terrorism in Australia.
Conclusion – a World Without Borders
I am a proponent of multiculturalism, because I believe that it can be beneficial for diverse communities to coexist and contribute to the growth of nations and their economies. The dream of a borderless world can become a reality, provided that fundamentalists and other extremists, who often exploit religion and regional differences to disrupt the stability of Western countries, are kept in check.