Review-cum-Summary of Ravindra K. Jain, 2010, “Nation, Diaspora, Trans-nation: Reflections from India”

“There is class and culture difference between the homeland Indians and the Indians in the diaspora. The homeland Indians often regards themselves as culturally superior to the Indians in the diaspora… Contrasting such stereotypes are the third and fourth generation South African diasporics “who regard themselves as more Indian or Pakistani than the homelanders.”


Ravindra K. Jain’s book, Nation, Diaspora, Trans-nation: Reflections from India, was first published in 2010. However, as the author acknowledges in the preface, the chapters in the book were written between 1989 and 2009 based on the author’s own research in the Indian diaspora. The book, though mainly focusing on Indian diaspora, is considered to be a major contribution to the debate on global diaspora especially at the present context of globalisation. As the title suggests the book deals with various aspects of “globalisation, diaspora, nationalism, and patriotism, as well as transnationalism from various perspectives”1.

Nation, Diaspora, Trans-nation: Reflections from India

There is a clear outline of what is inside the book and what the author intends to achieve from this particular work. The author clearly points out the research sites of the work, the methodology adopted and the structure of the book. With its wide geographical coverage and thus the wide range of comparison, the book is an insightful and commendable work in the field of Indian diaspora. The author’s academic background as a social anthropologist also has a huge influence on the present work.

Research Sites Identified

The author has divided the Indian diaspora into six major geographical zones viz., Africa and Mauritius, West and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, North America and Europe. And, he has identified the research sites which are Malaysia, Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago, Caribbean, Guyana, Suriname, South Africa, Mauritius, Australia, and Fiji. The author also includes United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, though these regions are not based on the author’s own fieldwork experiences unlike the other countries mentioned above.

In an interesting account, in all these cases, the author examines the historical development of the Indian diaspora which he points out was the result of Indian labour migrating to the plantation economies of the above mentioned countries during the third decade of the nineteenth century. Today, the Indian diaspora has a significant impact on the economic and political domains of these ‘host’ countries2.

Methodology- Comparative Approach

The methodology adopted in the present work is comparative approach, which in fact is an anthropological comparison. The author deploys this method in two ways. The first is “cultural translation”3 by which it means the translation of unfamiliar society and culture in ways the anthropologist could comprehend, and to make inter-societal comparisons for a wider understanding. Here, the anthropologist or analyst should not be influenced by his or her biases or value preferences. The second one is the explicit and implicit character of the comparison which we find in different chapters of this volume.

Structure of the Book

The author arranges the structure of the book into two dimensions of comparative studies- horizontal and vertical dimensions. While chapters One to Five “look at inter-diaspora connections” which the author calls the horizontal comparisons, chapters Six to the Conclusion “deals with the intra-diaspora anchorage of the same phenomenon” and the author calls this vertical modalities4.

Chapter One- Reflexivity and the Diaspora: Indian Women in Post-indenture Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa, and Mauritius

The first chapter of the book draws attention to the condition and status of the women in Indian diaspora in post-indenture Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa, and Mauritius. This is in special relation to certain stereotypes created by the Western scholars in the field about women in Indian diaspora and the refutations of these stereotypes by diaspora-based Indian scholars and others. The author has “chosen these localities because they represent the ‘old’ diaspora or the PIOs”5.

Refutations of Stereotypes Constructed about Women in Indian Diaspora

In response to non-Indian authors and particularly to Poynting’s view of Indo- Caribbean women as backward, ‘immoral and streetwise prostitutes’, the author argues by bringing accounts of oral narratives and citing various works of indentured and post- indenture women in the Caribbean. The names include Patricia Mohammed, Noor Kumar Mahabir, Sumitra Chatterjee and others. In the works of these women scholars, they found that “majority of women were breadwinners as well as homemakers….the presence of Indian women created the most significant basis for the workers’ ability to form families, set up nascent boundaries of social interactions and extended kinship networks and generally ‘recreate their ethnic hearths’ ”6. Gunilla Bjeren also argues that the cultural and social identity of the homeland is reproduced by women especially in the Indian diaspora context.7

The official discourse about women in these places was confined to “their ‘immorality’ in situations of their exploitation by European planters but widely believed to be due to the unfavourable sex-ratio.”8 The Indo-Mauritian women were also subjected to social and sexual exploitations as well, yet they did rise above them and tried to reconstruct some kind of enduring family life. In fact, women in the Indian diaspora were not without any capacity to contribute to the Indian migrant community. Shameen argues that those women were intrinsic to the capitalist economy, they provided wage labor, and contributed to domestic and subsistence production.

Our author argues that the contribution of women in Indian diaspora deserves to be highlighted. He also argues that the diaspora-based Indian authors have a “common denominator of reflexivity” which is completely different from non-Indian scholars. They subscribe to the ‘challenge and response’ paradigm. “The reflexivity of the diaspora-based scholars…does not talk solely of exploitation but of challenge, response and innovations in their own communities”9. This is in contrast to the uniform depiction of anomie by Anglo- American scholars who frame their findings in the exploitative nexus of colonialism and imperialism.

Chapter Two- Race Relations, Ethnicity, Class and Culture: Indians in Trinidad and Malaysia:

As the author puts it, “the purpose of this chapter is twofold: to provide a comparative analysis of the situation of Indians in two widely different national settings, namely Malaysia and Trinidad, and to explore the interplay and the relative significance of such factors as race relations, ethnicity, class, and culture in defining the varying identity of the Indians in the two countries”10.

Here, the author conducted an anthropological fieldwork. The overall conclusion of this comparative study finds that “while there is marginal retention of the Indian pattern of caste-based social stratification in the South-Indian diaspora in Malaysia due to a number of structural-historical factors, in Trinidad on the other hand overseas transmigrants mainly from North India have lost the caste system as a major institutional form of social stratification… in micro terms, whereas race relations define the structural location of the East Indian group in Trinidad, it is the framework of ethnicity that typifies the positions of Indians in the wider structure of Malaysian plural society. A salient finding of this comparative exercise is that one may hypothesise the ‘passing’ of Indian caste into ethnicity in Malaysia and into race relations in Trinidad. Finally, given the socio-cultural complexity of the racial and ethnic identities in the plural societies of Trinidad and Malaysia, in both cases the formation of class-based solidarities within and across Indian communities remains unrealized”.11

Here, the author also says that “the mutual dependence of race and culture in Trinidad and of ethnicity and culture in Malaysia is crucial in defining the collective identity of Indians in the two countries”12. This correlation is also the reason that religion plays an important role in maintaining identity among Indians in Trinidad, while it is language in Malaysia.

Chapter Three- From Products to Process: Sikh Diaspora in South East Asia

Chapter Three provides an account of Sikh diaspora in South East Asian countries. It is an attempt for an explicit comparison of diasporic adaptation among the Sikh in various countries of South East Asia. The author points out the lack of proper study about the community in the region even though the Sikhs constitute a distinctive community of Indian diaspora in this region.

The author analyzes the resilience among the Sikhs of the region in terms of a “thermostat effect”. “The effect is manifest in the community’s economic well-being as well as moral and cultural cohesion in varying geo-political circumstances. While substantively the chapter provides a picture of socio-cultural continuity and change among the Sikhs, methodologically it advocates a study of the processes…rather than products…in the interpretation of the homogeneity and heterogeneity of distinctive cultural minorities like the Sikhs in the plural societies of South East Asia”.13

The author also points out “both the internal fluidity of the Sikh ‘becoming’ and the external homogenization of the Sikhs with Sindhis and Hindu Punjabis including, in Thailand, Pushtu-speaking Hindus from Pakistan”14.

Besides, the author also points out that there is a significant decline among Sikhs to comply with their religious and social values today. Sikh men took to either being clean shaven or grooming by trimming their facial hair to have a more presentable appearance. Sikh women, on the other hand, no longer wear the traditional dress, salwar kameez, and assert their own lifestyle choices as financially independent persons. There is also a language dilemma, problem of Sikh youths converting to Islam or Christianity, and the increased frequency of mixed marriages. There are also internal divisions in the Sikh community having mutually antagonistic factions for the control of leadership and resources in the community.

In spite of all this, it is noted that there is greater economic stability and mobility of the Sikhs in Southeast Asian diaspora. Most of them are in business of various kinds. The Sikhs in the region have attained greater economic mobility than other communities including the Tamils.

Chapter Four- Indian Diasporic Integration in South Africa

In Chapter Four the author tries to interrogate the development of Indian South Africans, and the process of their adaptation to the economy and society in the host country from a social anthropologist’s perspective. The author defines “diasporic integration” here to mean that the Indian South Africans “have located themselves both in their own perceptions and in terms of their socio-legal status as people who have neither acculturated towards assimilation nor remained patriotically Indian and isolated”15. They, unlike the Whites and the Blacks, never aspired to sovereign power in South Africa, but they have always wanted to be South African citizens. When the Indian Government was recently listing the countries that could qualify for the status of dual citizenship among NRIs, Indian South Africans were sidetracked precisely on this ground.

However, theirs is the story of struggle, resistance and resilience in a bid to adapt and settle down in the host country. The Indian South Africans (ISAs) came to the host country in the form of indentured labours. But today, there are many ISAs who are leaders in varying fields of entrepreneurship, politics, sports, businesses etc. Now, most of them identify themselves as uniformly middle class.

The Concept of “Niche” and “Interstice”

Such a development is explained by the author using two terms, viz. “niche” and “interstice”16. The author argues that the existence of a particular “niche” of opportunity in the host country was a myth because of many discriminatory policies including the apartheid policy aimed against the socio-economic mobility of Blacks and Indians alike. Instead, “in South Africa the Indian community has shown a remarkable capacity to take advantage of the “interstices” existing in the rigid politico-economic system to advance their cause”17. The migration created a territorial integration of ISAs though their cultural heterogeneity was retained, but a common identity as middle-class Indians was forged.

Chapter Five- Indians in Australia: Culture, Ecology and Economy

There are three important points that the author highlights in this chapter18: First, Australia is a nation of immigrants; second, there is a growing Asian immigration in the country; and third, the Indian component of Asian immigration and settlement in Australia is growing at a fast pace.

In this light the author also points out that overall the Indian born has superior linguistic, educational and professional attainments in Australia. And he refutes the generalisation made about the “untranslatability” of Indian culture and of “deterritorialisation” in the Indian diaspora. In the latter’s case, the author suggests that it should be replaced by what he designates as “multiple territorialisation” in the case of Indian Australians. His main contentions in it are that this perspective will bring certain advantages in two ways: “(i) the economic dimension of immigration and settlement, e.g., the class background and diasporic investment in India can be studied, and (ii) the policies of the host society and the nation-state dimensions of the status of the diasporics can become clearer… and (iii) the distinctive politics of the settlement society diasporics- their ethnic politics, perception of the ‘niche’ of opportunity, etc.,- would become clearer” 19.

Here, the author points out the economic and demographic problems in the continent and the consequent threat to human habitation. However, this is not the only problem that puts restriction to immigrants. The real problem is the existence of ‘majority prejudice’. To quote the author, in their argument for multiculturalism in the region, “There appears to be a general feeling that some ethnic groups are less able to assimilate than others, which can become the basis of social tension”.20 But, “once in Australia there is hardly any adverse prejudice or discrimination”21.

Chapter Six- Home and Abroad in the New Millennium

One has repeatedly asserted that those who left their homeland always think of returning though this was not realized in most of the cases. The Indian diaspora community remains connected to their families, their communities in various forms of interactions. Because, as Sheffer explains, modern diasporas are ethnic minority groups of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin- their homelands (Gabriel Sheffer, 1986, p.3). This, the author calls vertical ties: diaspora-homeland relations.

The forms of interaction may be that of business and philanthropy which is widely acknowledged among Sikhs and Gujarati diasporas, tourism and pilgrimage, social networks and other forms of diasporic imagination such as cuisine, fashion, films, literature etc.

Besides, there are call centres and outsourcing which the author calls ‘the meso- cosmic arena of Indian diaspora’. It is hugely successful in India contributing an estimated $ 17 billion to the Indian economy.