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Indian Diaspora: In Search of Identity

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Item Code: NAW157
Author: Rekha Sharma and E. Annamalai
Publisher: Central Institute Of Indian Languages, Mysore
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 817342102
Pages: 368
Other Details 9.50 X 7.00 inch
Weight 770 gm
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Book Description


Man having a natural instinct of curiosity has always been a wanderer. Not contented to remain tied to one place, human beings have been constantly moving on a discovery track. There have also been eminent travellers who are biggest source in our quest to reconstruct the past. But many of them crossed their threshold in quest of knowledge about the land beyond known horizons, to know about the ways and means of other races and population aggregates, and to learn more about popular beliefs, arts, crafts, religious and chronological practices of others.

Travelling beyond one’s homeland purely for economic reasons is not a new phenomenon either. But generally speaking, those who have left home in, search of new nests have not been known to retain any contact with those whom they have left behind. What makes a diasporic person different from a wanderer is that the former has carried and retained many of the traits of his or her earlier identity, and has also retained some sort of contact, however faint it may be rather than getting enmeshed into the communities and countries where they have migrated. With ships and water-ways being the only source of mapping long distances inter-continentally, this would probably be difficult, and those who could cross over on land routes probably had a better chance to go back and forth. But, greater the distance and difficulties in keeping in touch, more were the chances of these displaced communities to hold together and retain their identity. Even when ‘loss of identity is rewarded or forced by the rulers who commanded their economic activities, these communities had their own mechanism to remain frozen to a time vis-a-vis their belief and practices, while their brethren back home had invented and/or undergone many changes.

When the world began shrinking, and the distances became unrealistically shorter, thanks to the discovery of air-travelling and improved means of telecommunications, their chances of retaining contact improved dramatically. During the last four decades, such contacts have increased manifold. The best thing that has happened in the second half of the last century was that a new unity and relationship could be seen among different diaspora. Indians in Fiji, Surinam, Guyana, Mauritius and in different East Asian Countries were seen exchanging notes and coming together. This networking expectedly resulted in organisations and associations that are promoting the interest of Indians outside India. When this kind of new unity was being forged among diasporic Indians in search of identity, they also had other models before them — as the Chinese, Japanese, or other diaspora world over were emerging as major players in the socio-economic sphere of their countries of origin and were also important voices in the political scenario of the host countries. The latter was more strident when we find such diaspora assuming leadership of these nations. In today’s context, with more improved means of accessing knowledge and information and collaborative ventures across nations, the importance of a large diaspora is felt more and more by the planners, leaders and social scientists a like.

The Government of India has taken several initiatives to forge this relationship with those Indians who left home by creating specialized programmes, opening avenues of profitable investment, establishing channels of communications and entertainment, organizing cultural events, planning inter group platforms etc. Meanwhile, several other big-league nations have been equally pro-active, if not more, in pushing the agenda of "bringing" the communities and groups together. With all these, diaspora studies also emerged as a major discipline on its own right. Those interested in history, economics, sociology, social psychology, culture studies and linguistics have grouped together to study the psyche, language, demographic distribution, migration pattern and economic activities of such groups. In this academic activity, linguists and sociolinguists have often been at the background not coming up with new studies and fresh ideas with a force that could affect the research activities of other groups. With the present volume, containing a number of very important research papers by specialists in Indian diaspora, the Central Institute of Indian Languages is trying to fill the void. This is the result of an academic event, which was funded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India and the Government of Mauritius.

The volume has taken time to come out of hybernation, but it appears at a very significant time in our contemporary history. As the Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, inaugurates the celebration of ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas’ in Delhi during January 9-11, 2003, and as we outline several new initiatives that this Government has taken or planned on this occasion, we thought this volume, in a way, could be our contribution to promote a greater understanding among the Indian diaspora, and a tribute to those unnamed.

Indians who have gone into oblivion now, but really did a yeoman’s service in maintaining language and culture of our diaspora scattered over 70 odd countries. I hope the book will be appreciated by the academic communities all over the world, and in particular, by the twin communities of linguists and culture-study specialists. Finally, I commend the Central Institute of Indian Languages for having published such an important collection of papers on this occasion.


The Institute is extremely delighted to make an humble offering to the academia on the occasion of the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas’ on January 9, which, as we all know, marks the return of the Prodigal son in Indian. political life from South Africa. The Institute had organized a conference in 1994 inviting the best minds to contribute to this fast emerging area thanks to the generous grant released by the then Minister for Human Resource Development, Government of India and with active advice and contribution from Shri Arumugam Parasuram, the then Minister for Education and Culture, Government of Mauritius, who supported the idea whole-heartedly. We are particularly grateful to Shri Bissoondoyal, Director Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Moka, Mauritius for his support and collaboration from the inception of the idea to the conduct of the Conference. We are deeply indebted to all the scholars and the activists who presented papers in the Conference, contributed to the discussions and waited patiently all these years for the publication of the proceedings. Their patience has been tried for a long period of time, but then with the volume finally having seen light of the day — thanks to persuation of my friend from York, Professor Mahendra Verma, I hope their wait will be aptly rewarded. The encouragement given by Smt. Bela Banerjee in all our academic endeavour must be mentioned here.

We are thankful to the In-charge, Publication Unit and Manager, Printing Press and his team for seeing the manuscript through to its final publication. Ms. Uma and Ms. Vijaya deserve our appreciation for typing the manuscript and doing the DTP work respectively. We would also like to gratefully acknowledge Ms. Bharathi’s dedication and professionalism in proof reading the manuscript.

We would like to pay our rememberance to our dear friend, late Dr. R. A. Singh, whose contribution made the International Conference on the Mainenance of Indian Languages and Culture Abroad an unforgetable event.

On behalf of the Institute and on my personal behalf, we express our sincere gratitude to Professor Murli Manohar Joshi for having written the ‘Foreword’ of this important anthology and also for having presented it to the reading public of India and abroad.


This book is a collection of papers presented to the International Conference on the Maintenance of Indian Languages and Culture Abroad, held jointly by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Mauritius and the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore from January 5-9, 1994 at CIIL Mysore. This conference had been under consideration at the highest levels of the Governments of Mauritius Cultural Exchange Agreement. It was concretised during the seventh International Conference of Tamil studies held in Mauritius in 1989. After subsequent discussions between Dr. E. Annamalai, the then Director, CIIL and Sri Bisoondoyal, Director, MGI, the details of the conference were worked out. It was decided to broad base the theme of the conference to include language and culture maintenance among the Indian immigrants in Asia, Europe and America as well as the linguistic minorities in India itself, though the focus would remain to be the Indian Diaspora in the countries in the Indian and Caribbean oceans. The inclusion of other Indian Diaspora and minorities in India was intended to provide a point of comparison.

The conference was also broad based with regard to training, perspectives and ideologies of the participants, who were social scientists, social activists and media personnel in the countries represented in the conference. Most of the papers presented case studies and there were few, which discussed theoretical issues. These papers included social scientists’ view as well as activists’ view: insider’s observations as well as outsider’s interpretations. The objective of the conference was to take stock and review the situation of Indian languages and culture as practiced in the countries of Indian Diaspora and to suggest plans of action for future that include creation of infrastructures to have greater interaction between Indian Diaspora communities and between them and communities in India. The conference also aimed at interfacing the searchers and the communities they work on.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the linguistic and cultural identities among the minority communities, whether native or immigrant. In the context of globalization, new meanings of identity are merging. It is necessary to examine some of the sociolinguistic notions of identity in order to understand these new meanings.

The system of indenture labour exists no more and there has been improvement in socio-economic status of the immigrated communities. What remains to be resolved is the question of their linguistic and cultural identities. dilemma is whether to have these linguistic and cultural identities through construction of their past or through construction of their future.

The primary reasons for Indians to migrate as indenture labour to far off places were oppressive political conditions, recurring of natural calamities such as famines, floods etc. and decaying native industries. Abolition of slavery was the primary reason for Britishers to recruit Indians as a cheap bonded labour. Before starting the long sea journey from their respective villages the Indians were kept together in depots irrespective of their caste, religion and language. They traveled together in the same puddle fashion and on arrival in the new countries, were arbitrarily dispersed to various plantations. The sharing of the common fate and the need for communication made them overcome their linguistic and cultural differences and evolve a common code for communication while retaining their mother tongues and cultural practices to some extent.

Things have changed since then. The countries are free from the colonial rule and a modern economy is set in motion. Sharing the political power and economic benefits has led to new conflicts. Consequently the linguistic differences are surfacing and expression of identity through language 1s getting pronounced, though most of the Indian communities in Diaspora do not speak their ancestral languages. At the same time, the colonial languages, which are the languages of the government and commerce are gaining more power and thus being used increasingly. In India also, while linguistic identity 1s asserted politically, minority languages face threat from major languages and major languages are threatened by English. The issue of language must be perceived in relation to power, which is increasingly determined by access to information and control of knowledge and consequently control of economy. Language and culture maintenance cannot be studied independent of this phenomenon.

The papers in this volume represent the countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa, Surinam, Singapore, Hong Kong, UK, USA, and India. Moag in his paper "Language loss versus language maintenance in overseas Indian Communities" makes a comparative analysis of overseas Indian communities with regard to their historical background, their present status and their future. Using a matrix of demographic, political, sociocultural and sociolinguistic factors, he shows the present status of the Indian languages with regard to their maintenance and loss. He also shows that this matrix may be used to measure the efforts taken by the communities to maintain their language.

Dua in his paper "Language power and language pressure: a challenge for language maintenance and cultural identity" suggests that the dynamics of language maintenance and identity should be viewed as embedded in the power relation between communities. He shows how the dominant languages assume power and legitimacy by marginalizing the minority languages and culture and bring pressure for assimilation. This exercise of power is detrimental to the survival of minor/minority languages. The goals of language maintenance, set by the minorities are relevant in this context, which may differ in power relation from one multilingual setup [0 another. Language maintenance is a process of conflicting and complementing interactions between the goals of native language maintenance and dominant language acquisition.

Sachdeva illustrates different factors in identity formation and their relation to language with the examples of Punjabis in Delhi and Nagas in Nagaland. The Punjabis in Delhi are heterogeneous in terms of religion but are homogeneous in terms of communication. They share a set of codes that include mutually intelligible Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu for communication purposes though, they differ in their identities with languages. Nagas, on the other hand though are sociolinguistically heterogeneous, have languages that are not mutually intelligible. Their communicative need however, is limited. They do not share any set of codes for interethnic communication other than a pidgin. With regard to identity, Punjabis use religion, i.e. Hindu Vs Sikh as the primary factor and extend it to linguistic identity. Nagas base their identity on ethnicity to give them larger group identity against others like Kukis, Bengalis etc. Language gives identity to individual Naga communities and the pidgin plays no role in the larger identity formation.

Lekhwani in his paper, "Maintenance of the Sindhi Language and Culture Abroad" describes the case of Sindhis which is a linguistic community without a home state. The partition of India scattered them mainly in the urban centres of western and northern states of India. In spite of its recognition in the Indian Constitution and financial support from the business houses and the government, maintenance is limited to religiocultural contexts and restrictively to home. This brings out the role played ‘by migration and urban milieu in language loss. Absence of a home state with political control contributes to failure of planned action for language maintenance.

The above first set of papers lay out the historical, political, social, anthropological and geographical facts that interact with the question of language maintenance. In the second set, the papers are on formerly indentured communities. The labour population in the plantation was heterogeneous and it gave rise to the pidginized form of an Indian language for communication. This pidgin, unlike the one in Nagaland, stabilized and became the first language of the subsequent generations. These pidgins have lately been stigmatised with the introduction of standard Indian languages in formal education and with ascendance to power and prestige of former colonial languages such as English and French in politics and education. AS the standard Indian languages are non-functional for these communities, identity based on language does not any more have mass character and it has acquired elitist connotations.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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