South Asian Migrations’ laudable aim is to fill in the gap left by Atlantic and Eurocentric models of global history that ignore and mask the importance of South Asian migrations outside the purview of British imperial power and thereby fuse the history of South Asian migration to global history. But how can the historical significance of South Asian migrants within a modern global migration history be captured and explored? The answer lies in a multi-scalar approach that studies South Asian migrations through the themes of indenture, legal regulation and historical biography.
Some of the strongest chapters are the ones that engage directly with global history, reflected in Andrea Wright’s contribution that examines the enduring legacies of labour, insecurity and imperialism from the indenture era in shaping contemporary experiences of South Asian labourers in the oilfields of the Gulf. She shows that just as in the colonial period, contracts and regulations do not secure postcolonial South Asian migrants improved working conditions or protection from racialized labour hierarchies, precarity and the neoliberal security regimes of the Gulf. The global impacts of indenture are less clear in Ashutosh Kumar’s chapter. According to Kumar, indentured migrants exercised bargaining power when demands for foods to meet dietary and religious preferences were met in response to protests. But while Kumar claims that caste hierarchies were abandoned in favour of inter-caste dining on land at the central depot in Calcutta, it is also possible to argue that the provision of Brahmin cooks and low caste sweepers on board ship were a visible reminder, if one was needed, to low caste migrants of the persistence of caste-based power structures, maintained through the collusion of high-caste migrants and the colonial state.
Chapters 4 and 5 continue to explore the legal dimension of South Asian migrations raised in Kumar’s chapter. Riyad Sadiq Koya adopts a novel approach by focusing on the problem of exit from colonial South Asia rather than entry border practices that excluded British Indian subjects from other parts of the British empire and beyond. The issue of consent when recruiting women for indentured labour is particularly well drawn out. Marina Martin is also innovative when analysing the international dimensions of the construction of the legal term “Asiatic” in South Africa from 1860 to 1960 and its implications for migration, cementing group identities and diplomatic relations. Part 3 of the edited volume follows the global itineraries of two lesser-known Indian “expatriate patriots” (p. 18) outside India. The chapter on Taraknath Das explores his life in the Pacific Northwest of America, and his involvement with the anti-colonial Ghadar Party as well as drawing comparisons with Mohandas Gandhi. Bose concludes that long-distance nationalists like Das internalized aspects of liberal imperialism while partaking in revolutionary anti-colonialism. Chapter 7, one of the highlights of the volume, focuses on the fascinating life of Pandurang Khankhoje, who sojourned in North America, Europe and Asia, before settling in Mexico for thirty years and eventually returning to India. Daniel Kent-Carrasco charts Khankhoje’s remarkable transformation from labourer and wanted fugitive to celebrated modernist scientist and “esteemed citizen of an independent Latin American country” (p. 181). Kent-Carrasco argues that Khankhoje’s participation in political networks and agricultural movements in West Coast America and post-revolutionary Mexico enabled him to circumvent surveillance by the British imperial state that dogged most Indian migrants. The chapter touches fleetingly on Khankhoje’s relationship to indigenous Mexicans, when according to his daughter, he self-identified as “doubly an Indian” (p. 190), a reference to India and the indigenous peasants he worked with. This raises intriguing questions about the apparent lack of alliances made by Indian migrants with native populations dispossessed by white settler colonialism. Bose notes this blind spot when he writes that Das “did not see the dispossession that Western expansion depended on” (p. 168) but there is no mention of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry Polak’s failure to reach out to native Africans in colonial South Africa in Goolam Vahed’s chapter about the end of indenture. Nevertheless, Andrea Wright does show labour solidarities in a non-settler context, when Indians joined Arab workers in strikes to agitate for better working conditions in the oilfields of the Gulf.
The prologue and epilogue are particularly rewarding reads, suggesting methodological and conceptual tools for researching, writing about and interpreting South Asian migrations. The prologue represents a master class in researching global and comparative immigration control, following Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie’s attempts to decolonize and de-segregate the racially segregated Cape Colony Immigration archives by “bringing down the archival walls” (p. 2) erected by the colonial state and considers immigrants catalogued separately through a comparative lens to reveal connections to global restrictions on the mobility of people of colour and the broader issue of the racialization of surveillance.
In the epilogue, Renisa Mawani briefly demonstrates the utility of the concept of “waywardness” as outlined by Saidiya Hartmann in her recent book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) on African American women and early twentieth century black urban life as a generative way of reading and writing South Asian migrant historical subjectivities and oceanic crossings. However, more space could have been devoted to discussing the application of waywardness to South Asian migrant lives. For example, how can the concept defined by Hartmann as the “practice of possibility, at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed” (p. 226) relate to the subject of chapter eight, a working-class South African Indian woman, Senthamani Govender, who was born in 1920s South Africa to indentured parents and established a life and home for herself and her four children after widowhood in the face of significant economic, social, political and domestic precarity that characterized twentieth century South Africa for black and brown women? Legitimate concern expressed in the chapter that women like Govender have been silenced sits uncomfortably with the complete absence of quotes from Govender. In contrast, the wayward female subaltern’s, albeit wordless, voice is not just audible but breathes life and agency into chapter 4, through a 1871 press report about the kidnapping and trafficking of young women from Allahabad into indenture in Jamaica, which references a young woman’s confinement by kidnappers while attempting to rescue her sister, who “by means of ‘vociferous howling’ was able to force her own release.” (p. 114) Not only does the case study throw light on issues of consent in the history of indenture, but the frequently voiceless female subaltern is able to use the power of her voice, will and ingenuity to effect not just her own emancipation, but the eventual liberation of twenty women, including her sister.
In sum, South Asian Migrations is an ambitious, original and insightful collection of essays that incorporates large scale migrations, state regulations and individual lives, giving students, teachers and researchers of migration, indenture, legal history and global biography much to reflect upon and as such is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on the history of South Asian migration.