Many generations of Indian migration around the Indian Ocean has created a diaspora which today is increasingly seen by India’s foreign policy makers as a possible asset for India’s economic development, defence and security. What we hope to learn with this project, though, is how diverse Indian diasporic populations around the Indian Ocean feel about India and this outreach.

In this piece, we discuss the purposes of this project, what we hope to accomplish with the Indian Ocean Migration Archive, and what this project can do for Indian diasporic populations in their home countries.

In 1945, two years before Indian independence, Indian strategist and diplomat KM Panikkar noted that whoever ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean has India at its mercy’ and that India could not be stable or developed ‘unless the Indian Ocean is free and her own shores fully protected’.

His argument was premised largely on the story of European expansion into the Indian Ocean leading to India’s colonization. The memory of colonisation, then, has driven India’s efforts to defend itself in the Indian Ocean. Today, India’s diaspora engagement has become a key part of this broader foreign policy.

The Indian diaspora around the Indian Ocean, though, is exceptionally diverse.

In the Straits, in Malaysia and Singapore, small groups of Indians, such as the Chetti Melaka, can trace their origins back to the precolonial Melaka Sultanate (c. 1403-1511).  Towards the Gulf, links between India and the Middle East are particularly strong for Malayalis and Gujaratis, two peoples with long histories of connection to that region. To the South, the migration of Sinhalese and Tamils to Sri Lanka is foundational to that state’s politics. Further West, evidence of South Asian connections to the East African coast has been found in oral traditions, ancient texts and archaeological digs.

These interactions intensified under colonial networks, with Indians being sent around the ocean, often as cheap, sometimes indentured, labour. Today, there are large populations of Indian origin existing up and down the East African coast, on Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius and Reunion, and in South East Asia. Indians, most prominently Tamils, make up considerable elements of Singaporean and Malaysian Indian diaspora communities. Australia even considered using Indian indentured labour to develop its tropical northern regions, but ultimately rejected the idea, largely due to not being allowed to force these labourers home at the end of their indentures.

As postcolonial India began to advocate for a decolonised world order, it pointed out the continuing forms of imperialism and racial discrimination, particularly in the former British Empire. This most famously meant apartheid South Africa. India also advocated, however, for the various Indian diasporic populations who had been sent around the Indian Ocean, such as in Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya, and Tanzania. It also sought to challenge racist immigration practices in Australia.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, aware that independent India, due to the wide circulation of Indians, might itself be seen as a possible colonial power, tended to tell diasporic populations to settle where they were. However, India asserted often that it would not accepted to poor treatment of its diaspora.

With the Indian Ocean Migration Archive website, we hope to understand the Indian state’s relationship with Indian diasporic populations around the Indian Ocean. In particular, we wish to emphasise the enormous diversity of the Indian diaspora around the Indian Ocean.

Today, the India has developed categories for “Non-Resident Indians” (NRIs). It also provides cards for “Overseas Citizens of India” (OCIs), which do not confer true (political) citizenship, but function effectively as multiple-entry visas.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gathered a lot of attention, and his claim that he has raised India’s profile in the eyes of the world was an important element of his re-election campaign. Modi’s diplomacy around the Indian Ocean has focused largely on engaging with diasporic populations.

The first state in Africa that Modi visited was actually Mauritius. When in Kenya, Modi gifted the nation a statue of Gandhi. In Uganda, Modi inaugurated a bust of his hero, independence leader Sardar Patel. In South Africa, Modi emphasised the experience of Mahatma Gandhi, and gave a speech to the Indian community. In the UAE, Modi has sponsored the building of an enormous Hindu temple in the desert outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Despite these overtures, what is not well understood by researchers or policymakers is how diasporic Indian populations – or populations that Indian foreign policy terms “diasporic” – actually feel about India or its outreach to them. Also poorly understood is how these populations feel about being mobilised by their “home” governments in pursuit of closer relationships or alliances with India.

This tree was planted by H.E.Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee Prime Minister of India on 4.9.1998
Plaque commemorating visit of Indian PM Vajapyee Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens.

In Mauritius, for example, personal connections to migration history from India may not be that strongly felt. The UNESCO world heritage listed migration museum at Aapravasi Ghat is one of the key sites of Mauritian identity. However, it has distinctly sad overtones. The migrants who came to Mauritius from India largely came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as well as some departing from Madras and Calcutta. Most came from extremely poor backgrounds. The history of migration is not necessarily remembered fondly. Still, links to India appear all over the island. India remains one of key international relationships for Mauritius, and signs of this are dotted all over the island.

Madurai Mariammen Temple Society
Temple in the Tamil style, Port Louis, Mauritius

Although Indian links are visible all over Mauritius, the connection to India is not necessary strongly felt by the general population. Mauritian creole has largely replaced South Asian languages at home, and French dominates in the workplace.

With this project, we want to understand how the Indian state thinks about the Indian Ocean and the circulation of Indian peoples are cultures on its rim, and how this gives meaning to Indian foreign policy. Crucial to this, though, is how these peoples themselves think about India.

We want to do this through engaging with these diasporic populations, and collecting and telling their migration stories. This will produce a far broader understanding of diasporic “Indianness” around the Indian Ocean. It will shed new light on India’s foreign policy aims and their chances of success. And perhaps most importantly, we also hope it will also enable better mutual and understanding between cultural groups in Australia and elsewhere.

This website will become a hub for people sharing their stories of migration. We hope that, as well as feeding into scholarship, these stories will eventually be made publicly available.

Our first project is on India and Australia, starting with a survey (available here) of the Indian diaspora in Australia, which looks at migration stories of “Indians” – from India and elsewhere – living in Australia. In future projects, we hope to look at other locales, such as South Africa, Kenya, the UAE, Mauritius, Singapore and Malaysia.

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