In search of the ‘authentic’ diasporic subject
22 December 2014
Searching for diasporic authenticity in narratives of the past blinds us to the politics of the present.
(This essay from our web-exclusive package was first published in Himal Southasian, September 2003. Watch out for Thomas Blom Hansen’s response to this essay in our next posting in the web-exclusive package ‘Diaspora: Southasia abroad’.)
In the last twenty years, as patterns of migration continue to disperse growing numbers of people across the world, the idea of the disapora has become increasingly common in the social sciences. Utilised initially as a predominantly ‘neutral’ term to describe the dispersal of people from a ‘homeland’, it was largely drawn from the historical precedent of Jewish communities, a varied and complex phenomenon, which changed in character through time and space. Although they were not always explicit, certain assumptions were embedded in the idea of diaspora, which related back to ‘the Jewish experience’. These assumptions were that a diaspora was born of suffering and loss, contained a desire to return to a ‘homeland’, and that this dispersed population was, potentially, radical in character, a subaltern in the midst of dominant political structures. These assumptions were powerfully reiterated when the notion was applied to the forced migration of enslaved Africans, who, in the process of enslavement, were not only denied their history but also faced alienation, brutalisation and racism in their new ‘home’. African American scholars helped write Africans back into history, and in the process, inscribed a sense of belonging to an African diaspora, through the shared experience of enslavement and dislocation from a place of origin with common cultural codes, helping create an ethos of an authentic, pan-African identity. W E B Dubois and Booker T Washington are amongst those associated with the creation of Black Studies in the United States, and, via the Harlem Negro Renaissance Movement, helped spawn the idea of ‘negritude’ amongst writers such as Aime Cesaire and Leopold Sengor in the Francophone world, where all those of “negro descent” shared certain distinct characteristics.
SOUTHASIA: DIASPORA ABROAD
This essay is part of Himal‘s Raman-Hansen debate on the notion of ‘diaspora’ from 2002-2003.
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These assumptions were also emphasised in a different way when ‘diaspora’ came to be conceived in a sense that disrupted ideas of essentialised, national identity. In Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall recontextualised the notion of diaspora, locating it in the experience of colonialism and contributed to an alternative reading of the constitution of collective identity. This innovative analysis tried to incorporate complex colonial histories and subvert dominant narratives of the nation state, where many of those who had migrated to Britain in the recent past found themselves ‘erased’ from British history. In this instance, rather than pointing to an essential ‘pan-Africanness’, the focus shifted instead to hybrid narratives constructed from the fabric of slavery, displacement and racism, as a necessary counterweight to marginalisation in British society. Diaspora thus marked a different sense of belonging, extending beyond, but also within, the borders of the nation state. (Gilroy has come to find the term diaspora problematic, and suggests the idea of ‘outernationalism’ as a better way of understanding identifications beyond the borders of the nation state.) The idea of diaspora was interpreted as a subversive mode of identification, which challenged notions of absolute states of being. In this form, it was also a part of the shift to anti-essentialist analysis in the wake of postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques of Enlightenment thought and the modernist project, after the ‘critical events’ of 1968. This conceptualisation of diaspora also intersected with, but was not identical to, the wider project of postcolonialism and ideas of hybridity. For anthropologists stuck in a moment of theoretical paralysis, where ‘the gaze’ had turned back on themselves, diaspora studies seemed to offer a way out of the ‘crisis of representation’ suffered in the wake of critiques that increasingly drew a caricature of a discipline determined by its colonial past, shaped by Eurocentric presuppositions, and theorised through such treacherous notions as ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’.
Diaspora studies generated a batch of new journals, which sometimes also centred on theoretical concerns that attempted to break free of ‘Eurocentric’ perspectives on modernity and culture. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies was launched in 1991. From its inception, various attempts were made to create an academic template for the study of “diaspora” as the term was also increasingly used for people involved in voluntary migrations in search of work or in pursuit of trade. Since migration is a central aspect of human history, it is not surprising that the concept seemed appropriate for a growing number of populations around the world. Indicating that things might be heading for a diasporic free-for-all, where the idea was being used in several ways at the same time, in the first edition of Diaspora, the anthropologist William Safran outlined who could lay claim to diasporic identity. Safran returned to the “Jewish experience” as the authoritative reference point for authenticity. Critical of sociologist, Robin Cohen’s rejection of this model, and citing it as an anti-Zionist stance, Safran presented qualifying factors for diasporic legitimacy. Central to this conception is the idea of a desire to return to a literal homeland.
Critically collating his own overview of the term, James Clifford suggested that Safran’s conception was too narrow, and developed the notion of diaspora to express a state of being in later modernity, built around his metaphor of “travel”. Through an analysis of Gilroy’s book, Black Atlantic, Clifford restored a sense of ambiguity to the concept, where the idea of “dwelling in displacement” retrieved some of its earlier anti-essentialist ambitions. Here, connection to a literal homeland was not a prerequisite, but could also be an imagining. In conjunction with a useful discussion of the ambiguities of the Jewish experience, Clifford presents us with a more nuanced approach to “tracking”, rather than “policing” diaspora. However, there are still problems with Clifford’s description. In particular, he paints a heavily romanticised notion of the concept. According to Clifford, even “chauvinistic agendas” amongst diasporic communities are merely “weapons of the (relatively) weak”. In this particular reading, diaspora is filled with the potential of the dissident outsider. Interpretations of the diasporic have subsequently veered between the ‘checklist’ approach and an anti-essentialist paradigm, with various shades of interpretation in between. Given this history, it is self-evident that diaspora studies have become a contested terrain.
In more recent times, diaspora is increasingly everywhere, and nearly everyone, it seems, is suddenly disaporic in some sense. Significantly, the concept has been taken up by transnational communities themselves and used as a form of self-description. This is hardly surprising, as attempts to analyse the diaspora have in themselves helped create self-consciously diasporic communities. In certain academic quarters, this has caused some degree of discomfort, not least because this self-ascription has often been tied to a politics of the right. In India, for example, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have actively supported the idea of a diasporic nation for their own political purposes, only too aware of its potency in building an international network of support. In this new phase of disaporic promiscuity, a backlash was inevitable. Conferences and academic journals are full of renewed debates on the need to re-think diaspora. This new challenge has taken the form of a two-pronged attack, whose roots go back to earlier concerns. The first stance suggests that the term had become so thinly stretched that it had lost all analytic capacity. The second critique of the now ‘omnipresent’ diaspora is to question whether the term is, in fact, appropriate for some of the communities that use it to describe themselves. This argument suggests that if the Jewish precedent is still to mean anything, (suffering, displacement, loss of homeland), that, above all, it is rendered meaningless when appropriated by a “new privileged, mobile, post-national corporate class”, the beneficiaries of the postcolonial world. Thomas Blom Hansen, in his essay ‘Diasporic Dispositions’ (Himal Southasian, 2002), levels the same criticism at contemporary Indian South Africans.
Hansen returns to the Jewish template. Noting that Indians in South Africa come from two different sets of migrations, the first consisting of indentured labourers, the second made up of “passenger Indians” (so-called because they paid for their own passage on the boat), who were mainly higher caste Gujurati traders and merchants, he contends that it is indentured labourers and their offspring who, because of forced migration and loss of homeland, conform to the real diasporic experience, and hence can lay claim to such an identity. (To that extent his argument is congruent with the perspective of a growing body of work that attempts to situate indentured Indians in the same diasporic template as that of displaced Jews and Africans.) However, Hansen suggests that their links to a “homeland”, and reinscriptions of “ancient cultural traditions” were limited, and subsequently, they initially had no real experience of being a part of a diaspora. He considers that Indian South Africans “developed their own identity, tied to South Africa, and disentangled from the Subcontinent, but they were also separated from the worlds of India by differences of perception, moral conduct, expectations and notions of self”. In addition, he suggests that because of this history, the affluent Indian business community who now use the term to describe themselves, cannot truly be a diaspora; it is, rather, a recent invention, and a cover for the creation of business and cultural links. Hansen suggests (and I would agree) that turning their gaze to India is mainly a way of making sense of their present predicament in South Africa, where despite their long-term presence and the attempts of many Indians to “keep their heads down”, they are still widely regarded as outsiders, and caricatured as “exploitative shopkeepers”. (Winnie Mandela famously voiced this sentiment during her testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)
The implication in Hansen’s article is that this claim to “diasporic identity” contradicts the true spirit of the term, which lies in the Jewish precedent, against which diasporic authenticity is to be measured. As with many of the writers cited above, Hansen’s argument suggests that there is a foundational diasporic subject, born of loss and suffering, radical by nature, and in constant contact with a centre, or “home” through which the experiences of the diasporic periphery are negotiated. Indeed, one of his most insistent criticisms against the use of the term for Indian South Africans (and other international Indian populations), is their “problematic” relationship with “home”, i.e. that they do not really “know” India. He argues that many Indians, searching for upward mobility, define themselves as “modern”, and see much of India as the antithesis of this, a place of dirt and chaos. In addition, those who have visited “home” through “roots tourism” and returned with positive responses, were, according to Hansen, seeing India through rose-tinted orientalist glasses, building romantic visions of peaceful village life as a spiritual haven. It is a no-win situation, and he suggests that this “problematic” relationship with home is also true of others in the “so-called South Asian diaspora”.
Hansen cites the growth of literature on diaspora since the 1990s, where the term “transmits a certain sense of shared destiny and predicament, but also an inherent will to preservation and celebration of the ancestral culture, and an equally inherent impulse towards forging and maintaining links with other migrant groups as well as the ‘old’ country”. But he considers that this relates to the experience of 1950s and 60s labour and post-war white collar migration, most significantly because Pakistan and India only became nation states in 1947. He argues that it was only people who subsequently migrated from the Subcontinent who had really formulated a “national affiliation and identity, and many were well-educated people from higher castes identifying themselves with a generalised ‘great’ tradition of Hinduism and Islam”. He states that “what is objectionable is the attempt in the writings by such migrants to impose on the ‘first generation’ of indentured immigrants the sentiments and modes of connecting to the homeland characteristic of the recent generations of Subcontinental migrants”. Hansen suggests that for early indentured labourers there was a “relative lack of any clear ‘disaporic commitment’ or identification with the ‘motherland’”, and most of them did not want to “go home”. To “forge and maintain links with one’s place of origin was not only difficult” it was also not desirable.
The contingent diaspora
This essay has a two-fold purpose. Firstly, it suggests that there is an alternative reading of the experience of early Indian migrants to South Africa, where the idea of India and ‘homeland’ were important components of who they were, for both the offspring of indentured workers and the so-called merchant class. That this form of identity took place some 50 years and more before Indian independence, and at a time when it was extremely hard for many Indians to maintain direct contact with ‘home’ makes this all the more remarkable. The Indian identity in South Africa was strongly influenced by the growth of the nationalist movement in India, which helped formulate ideas of Indian subjectivity, and an association with ‘others’ in scattered geographical locations. Central to this was the concept of India as the ‘motherland’ to which all Indians were connected.
The emergence of the idea of an Indian national identity as a part of the political project of Indian nationhood that was taking place in India in the late 19th and early 20th century became an important constituent of early identity formation in South Africa. National identity does not spring from the moment of independence onwards, but is formed in the process of political struggle itself, through which appropriate cultural and political codes and ideas of subjectivity are articulated. The growth of the independence movement had an enormous influence on Indians in South Africa, both in terms of their own formulations of identity, and in the ways that they fought for political recognition there. In addition, during his stay in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century, Gandhi self-consciously set out to create a “new kind of Indian” built on the idea of an ancient Indian cultural heritage. In formulating his idea of passive resistance in South Africa, Gandhi imagined a type of Indian political subjectivity that was intimately connected to India as the ‘homeland’. Moreover, from the turn of the century, many of the sons and daughters of indentured workers were equally anxious to associate themselves with the ideology of Indian nationalism, and many saw India as their spiritual home.
To argue thus is not to suggest that this constitutes a template for Indian diasporic identity, but rather, that this particular expression of diaspora was a consequence of a complex set of historical circumstances. Migration in itself does not give rise to diasporic identification. Diasporic consciousness is, rather, created at certain moments in time because of a confluence of circumstances. A diaspora is characterised by the historical contingency of its ‘moment’, and tends to manifest itself at times of ‘need’. The ‘truths’ of any form of diasporic identity emerge for multiple historical reasons. If we change the register of our questions, it is not so much what diaspora is, but rather, what diaspora does that is of interest. Diasporas are not homogeneous in terms of class (or in this case caste) or political orientation. Diasporas will, therefore, sometimes also change in the ways in which they articulate themselves, as well as their alignment to a wider politics. In that sense, there is no foundational diasporic subject and no pre-determined radical character. My intention is not to prove Hansen wrong by claiming that the early experience of Indian South Africans was truly diasporic, (although, ironically, they seem to conform to many of his pre-requisites), but that the search for diasporic authenticity itself is misguided.
Trying to locate a diaspora either through a checklist, or from an anti-essentialist paradigm, are both flawed projects, coloured by a nostalgia for a romantic, ‘radical’ subject, born of loss and suffering. That the concept of diaspora is informed by those two great wounds that run through the body of modernity which refuse to heal, slavery and the holocaust, makes this particular nostalgia especially potent. Further, the measure of Jewish diasporic authenticity is itself inherently problematic, reducing a complex and diverse experience, evoked in support of both left and right-wing politics, to a one-dimensional model of suffering and displacement. At the core of this, the idea of ‘homeland’ and ‘Jewishness’ is highly ambivalent. For two thousand years, the Jewish homeland has been a spiritual imagining, unlocated in a physical space.
It was only with the emergence of the Zionist movement in the early 20th century that the idea of a physical nation state became the ‘homeland’, and at various times, it was suggested that this might be located in either Uganda or Ethiopia. Many orthodox Jews will still argue that the state of Israel is blasphemous in its physical form, and radical Jews grew increasingly disenchanted with the ring-wing orientation of Zionism and the state of Israel during the 20th century. The relationship with the ‘homeland’ for the Jewish diaspora is thus far from straightforward, and suggests that diaspora often conjures up a much more complex connection with the idea of ‘homeland’, a relationship which can be both ‘real’ or imagined and ambivalent. Furthermore, the diasporic ‘centre’ itself can change. For instance, as some scholars have pointed out, for many Muslims in South Africa, their ‘diasporic centre’ has shifted to Mecca. Therefore, instead of searching for authenticity, we should look to why diasporic identifications arise at particular historical junctures. For this is precisely about human beings ‘making sense of their predicament’ conjoined with the power of narratives of dispersal, loss and suffering, which call for some form of political compensation. Exploring some aspects of the relationship between Indian South Africans and ‘home’ in the first half of the 20th century will help illustrate this.
A new kind of Indian
In 1860, the SS Truro docked in Natal Bay with 342 ‘coolies’ on board. The ‘home’ that these indentured workers had left was a long way from being a nation, and the workers themselves were a heterogeneous group, differentiated by caste, region, religion and language. The migration of indentured workers continued until 1911, and they were also joined by ‘voluntary’ Indian migrants. In the main, these were higher-caste Gujarati traders and merchants. These early migrants have usually been envisaged as two distinct groups, but it is dangerous to pose too much of a dichotomy between ‘indentured workers’ on the one hand and ‘merchants’ on the other. Once freed from their contracts, many indentured workers went into industrial production, but also became white-collar workers and small-scale traders. They did not form a homogenous class or group.
The ‘merchant’ part of the population also included many small-scale traders who lived a precarious existence, as well as a host of Indians who had come over to fill menial positions in various Indian businesses. Rich merchants often became the patrons of ex-indentured workers who wanted to go into business, and were the landlords and employers of other Indians, building a complex web of exploitation and interdependence. Moreover, in matters of political representation, South African government bodies soon began to try and disenfranchise all Indians, (despite the protests of the wealthier upper castes). In wider society, all Indians were seen as ‘coolies’ or as the ‘Asiatic menace’, a term which encompassed ideas of disease, economic competition, and struggles over social space. Given these factors, Indians were largely thrown back on themselves, and had little choice but to form some loose sense of ‘community’, however fragile and contentious that might have been at times. ‘Community’ had to be invoked for political ends, as well as for structures of self-help, such as establishing schools, where state provision was woefully inadequate. This self-identification was reinforced by state policies that repeatedly tried to segregate Indians into certain ‘locations’. Indians were the first group in South Africa to be subjected to segregationist measures. Because of these factors, from early on, there was a development of some sense of ‘Indianness’, although this was contested and differently experienced in various parts of the community. However, important aspects of this ‘Indianness’ took root through a dialogue with events in India.
In India, as a nation-wide organisation, the Indian National Congress, began to form and give political leadership to an emergent ‘Indian nation’. Concurrent with a series of political demands from the British state, there was the development of a discourse that tried to create a ‘national feeling’ from the diverse populations of the Subcontinent. One part of this complex process was the notion of India as the ‘motherland’, bearer of an ancient cultural tradition, where the dignity and honour of the nation had to be upheld. These concepts were soon taken up by political leaders in South Africa, as a part of their own development of Indian subjectivity. But, at the turn of the century, Indians in South Africa also became important to Indian politicians in India, who were trying to find a voice in the international political arena. Indian disenfranchisement in South Africa soon became seen as “an affront to the whole [Indian] nation”, a part of a discourse of nationalism invoked through the concept of a motherland, which represented the dignity of ‘Indianness’. This ‘Indianness’ took on an increasingly international flavour, as the Congress was asked to intervene on behalf of Indians in Canada, Australia and Mauritius, as well as South Africa. This heralded the beginnings of a strong relationship between Indian political leaders in South Africa and those in India, as India was increasingly asked to support the fight for rights within South Africa. The treatment of Indians in South Africa soon became tied to the wider question of Indian independence. By the 1940s, India repeatedly took up the question of Indian South Africans in international forums, much to the annoyance of the British government.
This relationship had important consequences for the forms of political organisations that were set up in South Africa, both for the ‘merchant elite’ and the ‘colonial-born’ sons and daughters of indentured workers. It also helped formulate ideas of Indian political and social subjectivity. Although Gandhi’s role in South Africa has been somewhat overplayed, most often presented as the ‘great man’ who came to the rescue of South Africa’s downtrodden Indian masses, he nevertheless made important contributions to the idea of ‘Indianness’, in South Africa, and helped establish continued links with the ‘homeland’ after his return to India. Even radical Indian political activists, whose constituency was the working class, appropriated Gandhian discourses of ‘Indianness’ and evoked them in order to mobilise political activity. On his arrival in South Africa, Gandhi quickly discovered that high-caste Indians were not immune from the derogatory stereotype of ‘coolie’ and he soon became known as the ‘coolie lawyer’. His caste status counted for little, as he was subjected to a series of humiliations, including being kicked and punched and thrown off a train. Gandhi set up the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. Largely modelled on the Indian National Congress (INC), its main purpose initially was to “keep India alive to Indian South Africans but to keep India informed of the situation in South Africa as well”. He famously formulated many of the tenets of his philosophy whilst in South Africa, where the shock he received by his treatment there, and the lack of success through conventional political methods, precipitated him to rethink his early commitment to Indians gaining rights as subjects of the Empire through constitutional means. He began to formulate a politics that presented itself as being based on a specifically Indian character, a character that was quintessential, no matter where one found oneself in the world. Gandhi developed his philosophy from very eclectic influences, but it became increasingly understood as specifically pertaining to an ‘Indian character’. Part of his inspiration for this came from his association with Jewish migrants.
Early on during his stay in South Africa, Gandhi began to draw comparisons with the Jewish experience, and considered that Jews were “soulmates in suffering” with Indians. As he observed, “In South Africa I was surrounded by Jews. My attitude to Jews is one of great sympathy. They have got a wonderful sense of cohesion. That is to say wherever you find them there is a spirit of comradeship amongst them. Moreover, they are a people with a vision.” Gandhi chose to see a similarity in the situation of Jewish people and Indians, and probably also realised the strength of its political appeal. He wanted to develop a similar collective identity for Indians in South Africa. In 1895, a year after the Natal Indian Congress was formed, he wrote in The Indian Franchise, “many times in the past the ‘sons of India’ were found wanting and their civilisation was in great jeopardy, and yet, the ancient India is still living. The wonder of all wonders seems to be that the Indians, like the favoured nation of the Bible are irrepressible, in spite of centuries of oppression and bondage.” Gandhi drew an analogy between the Jewish and Indian diasporas, which, in his eyes, were both denied justice. He saw it as the persecution of two races in exile.
This analogy became underlined in people’s everyday perceptions as well, partly because of the British colonial presence in the Subcontinent. For example, The Times of London compared the Indian ‘locations’ in South Africa with Jewish Ghettos. The Jewish liberals and socialists who Gandhi met were prepared to fight for the liberal-universalist values of fairplay, liberty and justice that were espoused by the guardians of Empire, and Gandhi saw the treatment of Indians within the Empire as similar to the treatment of Jewish people within the Christian world or, in more recent times, in the Russian Empire. To emphasise this, he wrote a comparative study of the Indian National Congress and the Russian Zemstvos, which were elected local self-government institutions. In his discussions with Jewish intellectuals in South Africa, there was much talk of the problems posed by unrepresented aliens within nation states or within the empire, who felt that they had split loyalties between their own people and their perceived place within the modern world. Many Jews in South Africa also had a keen desire to keep alive their own cultural traditions whilst fighting for universal rights of citizenship.
As he grew increasingly disillusioned with the possibility of gaining equality for Indians on the principle of imperial citizenship, Gandhi tried to construct an idea of ‘comradeship’ and collectivity amongst Indian South Africans in order to build an alternative political platform. He did this by drawing on notions of an ancient cultural heritage and a distinct Indian identity. This was increasingly articulated in terms of India as the ‘motherland’, and Indian subjectivity was viewed as being based on a non-violent, moral being. Despite the fact that his relationship with indentured workers was, at best, ambivalent and paternalistic, and grew increasingly romantic as his political philosophy developed, there is no doubt of his influence on many Indians in South Africa, an influence which grew after his return to India. Gandhi was at pains to include indentured workers in his conception of the ‘motherland’. For instance, when a young indentured Tamil girl, Vallianma, who had been imprisoned during a major strike by Indians in 1913, died shortly after her release, she became one of the martyrs of a ‘motherland’ she had never known. Gandhi visited her on her deathbed and lamented:
We mourn the loss of a noble daughter of India who did her simple duty without question and who has set an example of womanly fortitude, pride and virtue, that will, we are sure, not be lost upon the Indian community.
These sentiments were taken up by many South African Indian activists, including a considerable number who had never been to India. They helped engender these ideas in the wider community. Tamils such as Thambi Naidoo, who was prominent in the 1913 campaign, considered that he had “patriotism running through his veins” despite the fact that he was born in Mauritius and had been brought up in South Africa.
One of the most influential ways that Gandhi was to develop this idea of ‘Indianness’ was in the pages of Indian Opinion, a newspaper he started in 1903. As he grew increasingly disillusioned with constitutional politics and the idea of modernity in general, he began to formulate the concept of passive resistance, and imagine a ‘new’ form of politics. The communes that he set up, Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm, were seen as nurseries for the production of a new moral being. This called for a fundamental transformation of the self, a “creation of a new kind of human being, and a new kind of Indian”. This conscious construction of subjectivity was, however, naturalised as it was generated in the community and developed into a Gandhian discourse, and was increasingly located in an Indian specificity. The elaboration of passive resistance was particularly significant as it was deemed to be the method of political struggle that was most appropriate to the ‘Indian character’ and these political debates on Indian subjectivity were developed in Indian Opinion. The paper was an important voice for the Indian community and helped shape the Indian popular imagination in South Africa. The paper continually emphasised a sense of Indianness, which was invoked through images of the ‘motherland’ and pride in an ancient Indian tradition. This was constantly reiterated through articles about Indian history, politics and religious texts. The paper’s stated aims were:
To voice the feelings of the Indian community, to remove the misunderstandings which had bred the prejudice of white settlers against Indians, to point out to Indians their faults and give them practical and moral guidance and a knowledge of the motherland and to promote harmony in Empire.
In all likelihood, Thomas Blom Hansen would dismiss these factors because Gandhi was, for most of his time in South Africa, most closely aligned with the apparently ‘non-diasporic’ merchant elite. But his influence on Indians in South Africa was a complex phenomenon. Also, articulations of identity are not developed in a vacuum, but are created, appropriated and translated in interaction with others. Workers and their offspring developed their sense of self not in isolation but through complex negotiations in shared social and political landscapes. In this process, ideas of connections with India were perpetuated in multiple ways, including through cultural and religious festivals, and the development of a political dialogue, which intersected with significant parts of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Illustrative of this process was the observance of Muharram, which was an important factor in bringing a diverse group of workers together, as well as the newspapers started for the constituency of ‘colonial-born’ Indians, who, according to Hansen, were the true heirs of diasporic identity.
The historian Marina Carter has shown that indentured workers not only employed some degree of agency in the recruitment process in India, but that there was an understanding of themselves as a part of an international community of workers. Once in South Africa, if contacts with home were tenuous, there was nevertheless a constant stream of letters sent home through the Coolie Commissioner, which kept the idea of ‘home’ alive. If the initial waves of indentured workers did not sit around discussing their ‘ancient cultural traditions’ they certainly enacted cultural performances brought over from India, which were far more than forms of identity “encouraged by colonial authorities” as Hansen sees it. One example of this was the Muharram festival, which, although initially authorised by employers as the official ‘coolie holiday’, soon became a thorn in the side of the authorities, and came to have a much larger significance to the workers themselves. The observance of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, has a long history, and lies at the heart of split between Sunnis and Shiites on the nature of the ‘true heir’ of the Prophet. In India, the observance of Muharram, which consisted in the parading of coffins in the streets, self-flagellation and the tearing of clothes, was not only an assertion of Shiite identity but often assumed anti-colonial overtones, and became associated with voicing anti-British sentiment. For the participants, it came to represent a refusal to capitulate against overwhelming odds.
In South Africa, Muharram was transformed into a ‘carnivalesque’ celebration of the heterogeneous indentured cultures that came to South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century, a moment of contrived misrule and disorder. By taking over public space on the streets of Durban, indentured workers were able to temporarily disrupt the appalling conditions they faced every day. It was also an important way of creating a common cultural ethos amongst a diverse population. An amalgam of northern and southern Indian traditions, accompanied by the copious consumption of ganja (cannabis) and alcohol, the ‘Coolie Christmas’, as it came to be known, also served to reinforce white South African orientalist perceptions of Indians as a savage and heathen people, depraved in their practices and incapable of responsible behaviour. The colonial authorities soon “wanted to put a stop to this absurd annual Pagoda parading business about our streets [otherwise] we may expect shortly to have an army of these scull breaking fanatics taking charge of our borough”, R C Alexander, the Police Superintendent of Durban put it. It was also a vehicle through which indentured workers inscribed notions of self-identification, a means to counteract the loss of self that resulted from the common ascription of ‘coolie’. When faced with attempts by the authorities to clear ‘coolies’ from the streets, indentured workers were not afraid to challenge the authorities in question. On one instance when trouble broke out, Alexander noted:
The police were ordered to charge and clear the area. The police then removed the pagoda to the coolie quarters, but were met with resistance in the streets and had to abandon the idea. To bring the British rule further into contempt, the coolies were permitted by the magistrates to complete their programme the next day. The coolies were triumphant, the police sullen.
In response, Alexander urged that “this festival tomfoolery be suppressed”. This ‘tomfoolery’ was, however, a significant example of the inscription of cultural codes, which delineated a common identity, if not equality, amongst indentured workers, translated onto South African soil from an ‘ancient cultural heritage’. This in itself is of course not enough to suggest a wider identification of Indianness which transcended the borders of the South African state, but these instances of cultural reinscription have to be seen in conjunction with other factors, both in South Africa and internationally. The first of these was segregation, which began to affect Indians from the beginning of migration. By 1875, the Durban municipality tried to solve the problem of Indian ‘penetration’ into towns by suggesting separate Indian and African residential locations, outside of white residential areas, ‘kaffir’ and ‘coolie’ villages “remote from each other [where] coloured constables would probably have to be appointed specially to look after these villages”. This was one of the first attempts at group area segregation in a major South African city. For the next 70 years, there were continued efforts to implement these plans, with repeated endeavours to only sell plots of land to Indians on the urban periphery. In the language of the everyday, the ‘Indian problem’ became known as a “question of coolie habitation”. ‘Coolies’ were equated with urban squalor and portrayed as a risk to public health, and building restrictions and sanitation codes (such as laws relating to the subdivision and overcrowding of social and commercial property) were used against Indians in an attempt to curtail their economic advancement, and restrict them to certain social spaces.
Links with the ‘homeland’
These characterisations were applied to the whole Indian community, and this had important consequences. Certain localities became specifically Indian, and these landscapes became imbued with markers that were increasingly associated with the idea of an Indian identity. In particular, religious sites became important centres of cultural reaffirmation. The articulation of religion as a discursive field of Indian identity also involved inviting Indian religious figures to South Africa, which not only kept India alive in people’s minds, but also had a much wider significance. Discussions about appropriate religious observances formed ways of imagining how to be ‘Indian’, and gave rise to a form of religious nationalism. Many of these dialogues can be traced through the pages of the Indian newspaper, The African Chronicle, where the sons and daughters of indentured labourers, the so-called ‘colonial-born’, began to find a voice to express their hopes and political ambitions.
That the evocation of the idea of India through the political press was not solely the domain of Gandhi and the merchant ‘elite’ is illustrated in the pages of The African Chronicle. P S Aiyar, originally a South Indian journalist, had published the Indian World briefly in 1898, and this was followed by the Colonial Indian News between 1901 and 1903. He started The African Chronicle in 1908. Squarely aimed at the ‘colonial-born’ sons and daughters of indentured workers, it set a precedent for the articulation of an Indian identity that drew from a similar pool of Indian nationalist imagery utilised by Gandhi and the Natal Indian Congress, but this was combined with a strong sense of pride in their indentured ancestry, together with a powerful feeling of belonging in South Africa.
The early issues of The African Chronicle covered many religious issues which reflected the close relationship between religion and politics for a large section of the Indian community. These formed important links with home and were part of an attempt to reestablish a sense of religious authenticity in South Africa. There is also extensive coverage in the Chronicle of religious practices and the interpretation of religious texts, which became closely associated with an ‘ancient cultural heritage’. These early newspapers paint a significant picture of how imaginings of India were rearticulated in South Africa. Older members of the community still had a first-hand memory of India at this time. One series of articles, titled “The Story of My Life”, narrated the progress of a ‘coolie’ from when he was ‘caught’ in South India to his experiences in South Africa and gives an intensely evocative account of a South Indian village that probably came from personal experience. Narratives of this kind, together with religious dialogues, formed a language that was taking shape within the community, especially between the older and younger members. The latter had no direct experience of India, although it formed an important part of their self-definition. This was especially significant in counteracting their lowly position as ‘coolies’ or as the sons and daughters of ‘coolies’ in South Africa. Drawing on a discourse of an ancient religious and social tradition helped challenge their low status.
Other articles in Aiyar’s papers indicate some of the wider social concerns of this section of the community. Women were urged to be ‘progressive’ and to further their education, and the formation of the Indian Women’s Association received prominent coverage in the first issue. Judging from the list of its members, who are referred to as ‘enlightened Indian ladies’, this organisation was formed by the wives of Durban’s politically active Tamil men. The association seemed widely concerned with the education of Tamil girls but also tackled issues such as the three pound annual tax of indentured workers from the “woman’s point of view”. This attitude to women and the emphasis on education in The African Chronicle, which also noted that “sisters in the motherland” were being educated, formed part of a wider discourse that can be traced through the pages of the paper, advocating an ideal of the “modern citizen”, formed through a colonial education, and with a belief in enlightenment notions of a civil society that invested its members with an individual responsibility, with democratic rights within the nation state in return. It drew on more universal notions of freedom than the hierarchical ideas of ‘civilisation’ that had first inspired Gandhi and the Natal Indian Congress, but it was also infused with a strong sense of Indian and Tamil national pride. In talking of the struggle of the passive resisters in South Africa in 1908, the Chronicle declared: “They have been standing shoulder to shoulder to fight for a cause that effects [sic] them deeply, but they are (also) fighting for the honour and freedom of their nation. This is a national cause.” The nation they are referring to is India. The evocation of an ‘ancient cultural tradition’ was thus tied to very modern aspirations.
This concern with a ‘national cause’ was underlined by the extensive coverage of Indian politics and the reproduction of stories from Indian newspapers in the Chronicle. In 1908, there was much interest in ‘extremists’ who were challenging the conservative Indian National Congress between 1907 and 1909, the same ‘extremists’ who had in part spurred Gandhi’s writing of Hind Swaraj, the seminal text that outlined his ideas of an Indian tradition that was the antithesis to modernity, and first produced in a question and answer format in the pages of Indian Opinion. In the Chronicle, articles like “Anarchism in India” discussed the value of non-constitutional methods of political action, and the tactics of violence in the independence struggle. These helped formulate ideas of Indian subjectivity. There was an inherent rejection of violence, which was represented as being against the “Indian character”, followed by the sentiment that “nationalism does not and can not mean a violent departure from the inherited traditions of obedience and respect for elders and self discipline and self restraint”.
For the writers in The African Chronicle, the “Asiatic question” in South Africa had “transformed itself into one of the greatest international questions that the imperial government has been called upon to solve”. Quoting approvingly from the London Times, one article states, “the Indian government and Indians believed that it is in South Africa that the question of their status must be determined.” The status of India as a nation and the status of Indians in South Africa had become inexorably intertwined. In an article urging Indians not to “beg” for rights in South Africa, the paper declares, “the only remedy lies in aspiring for national independence”. In another article extolling the virtues of the mother tongue, the paper declares: “The vedic doors are open to all mankind; India is the motherland and common heritage of all Indians.”
The early political press that was set up in South Africa was a particularly important vector for ‘imagining India’, and had a strong commitment to ‘keeping alive’ a ‘celebration of ancestral culture’, as well as a strong identification with an Indian nationalist cause. Amongst ‘colonial-borns’, there was the complex articulation of a sense of South African belonging, and pride in their indentured roots, as well as a strong identification with a burgeoning sense of Indian nationalism; a sense of belonging and not belonging which often characterises the diaspora. It was an identification that grew as the idea of India itself developed, as a part of an international narrative of what constituted the Indian nation, as well as Indian subjectivity itself.
Radical Indian politicians also drew heavily from this dialogue. In the 1930s and 40s, as the idea of a nation was increasingly taking shape in India, ‘colonial born’ activists in South Africa were busy creating a diaspora politics, informed by a sense of moral duty, and modern aspirations of statehood and citizenship. The interwoven character of Indian social, religious, and political life meant that these articulations of Indian subjectivity were experienced at multiple points in the nexus of community. To protect their position as young South African Indian professionals, many of the ‘colonial-born’ and radical politicians challenged the compromising politics of the merchant class and asked for more decisive measures from the South African state so that Indian job security would be protected. This section of the Indian community had been badly affected by the United Party’s ‘civilised labour’ policy in the 1920s (of reserving certain skilled and semi-skilled jobs for white workers), and by the 1940s, their urban residential status was also being challenged. Their struggles over urban space in the 1940s began a contest over citizenship and belonging which continued until the 1960s. Colonial-born Indians constructed their ‘Indianness’ in an ambiguous fashion which reflected their marginal position in society, where marginality also often spurred an alignment with a radical politics. However, the political discourse which they developed was also laced with ideas of ‘tradition’ through Gandhi’s cult of satyagraha. The internationalism that they championed was also powerfully informed by an interpretation of socialism, anti-colonial nationalism, and the fight against fascism. In the South African context, these influences framed their political struggle to gain rights of citizenship.
Gandhi acted on the South African Indian imagination in multiple ways. On his return to India, Gandhi started to develop an international reputation for his political philosophy and in South Africa, there was a feeling of personal involvement in the ‘production’ of Gandhi as anti-colonial messenger. Other Indian politicians also loomed large in the Indian South African imagination. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the Indian press in South Africa was filled with news of the Indian national independence movement, and there was a palpable idolisation of Indian national heroes, through which many Indians in South Africa felt a part of an international Indian political community. At a time of increasing disenfranchisement of Indians in South Africa, as well as social and economic marginalisation, this association with India helped them make sense of who they were. Even radical Indian politicians increasingly addressed the Indian ‘community’ in terms of an Indian identity tied to notions of the ‘motherland’ and ‘national honour’, inspired as they had been by the political writings of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and the prestige of Indian Independence. It is also important to put this in the context of growing fascism in Europe and the build-up to the Second World War, when anti-colonialism and anti-fascism became conjoined in a particularly powerful dialogue of liberation and internationalism.
Veteran activists and academic Fatima Meer recalls this identification with Indian national heroes:
We became very involved with the Indian liberation movement in India, and Nehru and Gandhi were very great figures – they really loomed as superbeings, you know, they could do no wrong. It wasn’t just a simple kind of heroism. They were marvellous people, wonderful people, and they were involved in this whole liberation of India, and my father was constantly writing about that struggle – so we had a sense of goodness, and we had a sense of righteousness and we had a sense of freedom… the thing to do in life was to fight for one’s freedom.
Many of the people that I interviewed during fieldwork in South Africa spoke of how they had become politicised through events in India. Yusuf Dadoo, a prominent member of the Communist Party of South Africa, emerged as a particularly powerful example of a South African Indian radical, who, influenced by Gandhi (this was somewhat ironic, given Gandhi’s own deep dislike of socialist and communist ideology) and the Indian nationalist movement, expressed strong ties with the ‘homeland’. As with many second and third generation Indians, Yusuf Dadoo’s childhood was heavily influenced by his family’s tales of life in India, which seemed to contrast sharply with his experience of being Indian in South Africa. While still at school, Dadoo went to several meetings organised by Gandhi’s former South African allies on Indian issues, and listened to people speak of the need to support the INC in its fight for independence. In 1921, because of the severe inadequacies of educational provision for Indian South African children, Dadoo’s family sent him to Aligarh in India to finish his schooling.
Once there, and during his time in London and Edinburgh where he studied to become a doctor, he was further influenced by Indian nationalist politics. However, like many other Indian South Africans, who had romantic images of an India that they had created from a distance, on his arrival, Dadoo became somewhat disillusioned. Coming to his village in the rainy season, he was to observe glumly, “This place is full of mud and water. And it looks so grim and dismal. I don’t think India is the paradise I thought it to be.” He soon observed that India itself was rife with caste discrimination and glaring inequalities between rich and poor. His sentiments were to be echoed by many Indian South Africans who returned ‘home’ to try and find the India they had conceived in their imaginations. (Many of the younger political Indian South Africans I met during fieldwork had undertaken ‘roots’ tourism, and returned to India to visit their villages of origin, and most of them were highly ambivalent about their Indian experiences.) However, far from being some indication of a ‘bogus diasporic’ identity, this ambivalence in relation to the motherland in this period was a recurring, and important component of ‘being Indian’ in South Africa. It was a “resting place for the imagination” in times of hostility and exclusion. This is also reflected in the Indian press at this time. On the one hand, there was a glorification of India and its political leaders. On the other, whenever there was increased government legislation threatening Indians with repatriation, as was frequent in the 1930s and 40s, imaginings of India began to change quite dramatically. Echoing the reaction of the young Dadoo and his first experience of India, a memorable picture in a Natal Indian newspaper, The Leader, depicted a windswept village hut during the monsoon in India with the caption “Do you want to be sent home to this?”
The shifting gaze
By the 1940s, Indians in South Africa were facing a host of government legislation, which affected both their housing and work. In particular, there were attempts to prise them out of sectors where, as petty entrepreneurs, they provided services, which were as yet not established by state structures. In competition with both whites and Africans for jobs, social space and services, Indians also became the target of intense hostility at this time. Indian activists launched another passive resistance campaign from 1946 until 1948 against the Ghetto Act, which tried to limit Indian ownership of property. Passive resistance, as interpreted by radicals at this time was a reformulation of Gandhian ideas. Gandhi’s philosophy was retranslated and woven into notions of universal democratic rights that fed into a social democratic, anti-fascist tradition of left politics in the 1940s in South Africa, a politics that Jewish activists were also an important part of. Through trade union organisations, many Indian workers took part in the campaign. The themes that Dadoo used to address Indians during this period are telling. In a leaflet issued in 1946, Dadoo outlined the main points of the campaign, invoking India, Gandhi, and the 1913 strike:
It must not be forgotten that the Indian people are sons and daughters of a country with a proud and cultural heritage (sic). Their ancient motherland is the bearer of a tradition of civilisation as old as any in the world?.Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the first Passive Resistance struggle was launched in South Africa in 1906. It lasted for eight years and ended in a victory. The Indian people cherish the memory of the heroes and martyrs, the many noble deeds and sacrifice and bravery, of that struggle. Whilst serving imprisonment, a young girl of only 16 contracted a fatal fever. She died within a few days of her release. Her name was Valliama R. Munuswami Mudliar.
Dadoo was recalling the young girl who was transformed into a martyr and a symbol of passive resistance by Gandhi. In another statement, Dadoo declared:
It is for the removal of the difficulties of the Indian community and for the upholding of the honour of Indians that we have launched this campaign. We consider this inhuman Act derogatory to the honour and dignity of the Indian community as a whole and to the Indian nation.
By this time, Dadoo had become a transnational Indian political hero. In South Africa, in the vast majority of Indian homes, every one carried a photo of Dadoo, and he had also achieved a very high profile in India. Promoted as “Gandhi’s favorite son”, who also had the ear of Nehru, Dadoo appealed to a wide social and political constituency. Dadoo’s image, seen as a badge of Indian South African identity, also transcended the boundaries of the politically active. He had come to symbolise the spirit of the Indian nation for Indian South Africans, and a particular formulation of ‘Indianness’ in South Africa. This rather intense relationship with India began to mean little to workers from the mid-1940s. Appeals to Indian honour and dignity did not address the crucial social problems they faced in their everyday lives, and there was an increasing rupture between workers and Indian political leaders. From this same time, Indian radical leadership began to talk less of “the glory of the Indian nation” and more of South African belonging as a part of the Congress Alliance.
However, from Gandhi onwards, if not before, a complex interaction with India helped constitute the political and social identity of Indians in South Africa. In particular the notion of the ‘motherland’, became a potent symbol of ‘Indianness’ and was evoked by the young radical intelligentsia as well as other sections of the Indian community. These ‘diasporic notions’ were not confined to indentured labourers and their offspring, but were developed as a part of a complex language of belonging by various sectors of the community, with different political affiliations. At times, political agendas overlapped sufficiently to instigate joint action. At other moments, the concept of ‘Indianness’ became more of a contested terrain. This ‘Indianness’ also helped shape new cultural and political discourses in the context of South Africa. Gandhian ideas of power and social action were re-appropriated and re-represented, and became a crucial part of emergent concepts of what it meant to be an Indian political subject, and of subjectivity itself. For a diaspora community fighting multiple displacements, the configuration of an essentialised identity, or a ‘temporary closure’, became a vital strategy in their struggle to locate themselves in the political and social worlds that they wished to inhabit, and invoking ‘Indianness’ became one way of doing that. It was given added resonance through the anti-colonial struggle of the Indian nation, the idea of the potential of ‘progressive’ nationalism common among the left at the time, as well as the fight against fascism, all of which helped generate a powerful sense of international belonging. And the attachment to the Indian nation state was far more than a whimsical fantasy. It was a conscious, and powerful, political strategy at a crucial moment of realignment in international politics. That moment passed, starkly illustrating that diasporic identifications are fuelled by contradiction, and bear the seeds of their own negation. Many forms of contact with India continued during the apartheid era, but there was less of a sense of an international ‘Indianism’ in South Africa for a time; many working class Indians were more concerned with building permanent homes in South Africa, and those radicals who were active in the liberation movement were keen to stress a sense of South African belonging first and foremost. So the issue now, is why have some Indian South Africans turned their gaze towards India once more?
Return of the native
Many Indians came to occupy a place between Africans and whites in the South African political economy. Whilst the majority of Indians have remained amongst the poorer members of society, a significant number have nevertheless gained positions of relative advantage over Africans. Some have gone into small businesses and employ Africans. A small percentage has consolidated itself as a very successful business community. But despite trying to be ‘model citizens’, in many circles, Indians have still not been accepted in the ‘New’ South Africa. Although most Indians are working class, Indians have been conflated into a group characterised as racist exploiters of the apartheid era, and collaborators with the apartheid state. This is not helped by the wide-spread racist views held by significant sections of the Indian population, a racism which has to some extent been filtered through caste ideology. These perceptions of Indians are illustrated by the controversy sparked by a song written by playwright Mbongeni Ngema in 2002 entitled “AmaNdiya”, which means ‘Indian’ in Zulu. In the lyrics, Indians are accused of taking over Durban, exploiting Africans, and voting for white political parties. Ngema urges “strong men” to stand up to Indians. In “AmanNdiya” he states that “the reason we are faced with hardship and poverty is because everything was taken by the Indians, but they turn around and exploit us. Our people are busy buying from Indian shops.” The lyrics also state that Indians are “abusive to black people, being more racist than whites… These views are expressed by Black Africans throughout the country, from taxi stands to soccer matches.”
The song created much heated public debate in South Africa, which was perhaps more about who ‘belonged’ and was committed to the New South Africa. The fall-out was also reported in The Times of India, where “people of Indian origin” were said to be “livid” about being accused of “exploiting Africans and benefiting from apartheid”, stating that Indians “demanded an apology”. The song is indicative of the wide-spread hostility that many Indians face in their daily lives, who are in the main bemused by these reactions. The fear in the Indian community is fuelled by the memory of events such as the Durban Riots in 1949, where African hostility spilled over into physical violence against Indians and their property, as well as the fate of Indians in East Africa post-independence. But many Indians consider that they have made significant contributions to building up South Africa, whilst there has always been a small minority who have been active in the country’s liberation movement. It has forced much of the community to become more inward looking, and seek other ways of making sense of who they are. For some, religion has provided a means, and this has fuelled both an assertion of Muslim and Hindu identity. For many Muslims, their ‘centre’ has become Mecca, whilst others are erasing their Indian identity and claiming to be “Arabs from the Gujurat” as Hansen has pointed out. For some Hindus, India has become strongly identified as a spiritual homeland. Within this group, especially those belonging to the affluent business community, are consciously asserting themselves as “diasporic Indians”, and, as Hansen illustrates effectively, have formed alliances with the VHP and BJP.
However, this particular diasporic identification is, perhaps, the result of a different set of historical circumstances. One of the weaknesses in Hansen’s argument is his use of a “potted history”, which supposedly gives us a teleological explanation of the present. But emergent diasporic identifications can be new articulations, whose immanence relies partly on a very different set of circumstances, rather than the resuscitation of dormant modes of identification. The new diasporic consciousness amongst Indians in South Africa has been facilitated by the creation of an Indian diasporic ‘community’ in other parts of the world, providing some Indian South Africans with a language, and networks into, a certain sense of ‘Indianness’. These communal associations are the new creations of a globalised economic and social order, which nevetheless have powerful affiliations to the nation state. That these identifications should try and legitimise themselves through creating dialogues of suffering, victimhood and cultural authenticity is, surely, all too familiar. The point here is their allegiance to the VHP, not their diasporic credentials.
At the same time, a number of radical activists are denying their Indian identity, possibly as a way of stating their commitment to the new South Africa. For instance, adding to the debate on AmaNdiya, Devan Pillay, a sociologist at the University of the Witswatersrand and political activist in the ANC, has stated that he considered himself “an African engaged in a struggle for social equality and non-racialism in South Africa, Africa and the world”. Indian South Africans are thus responding in different ways to their present predicament, and if anything, any loose sense of community seems (once more) to be splitting on lines of religion, regional origin, or political orientation. From the mid-1990s, a number of Saturday language schools have been set up to “keep children in touch with their Indian heritage” but it is increasingly a heritage that is specifically Tamil, or Muslim or Hindu. Questioning whether one form of making sense of who they are is more authentic than another seems to miss the point.
As for “not really knowing India”, where Indian South Africans have become the hapless dupes of an orientalist discourse, it is also the case that the idealisation of ‘village life’ is not confined to Indians in the diaspora, but was an important strand of the development of Indian national identity by none other than Gandhi, amongst others. And when it comes to an embarrassment about dirt and chaos, surely this has been a central obsession of middle-class and upper-caste Indians in India for some considerable time. Many of these same Indians also consider themselves to be very ‘modern’ indeed. Perhaps they do not ‘know’ India either? If it is now a truism that all identity is constructed, any articulation of identity is going to look ‘fake’ when placed under the microscope. When you get too close, the artifice becomes all too apparent. Are some forms of artifice allowed to go unquestioned when tied to our wider nostalgias and what is deemed to be an acceptable politics? This seems to be an inadequate way of judging the politics of a given situation. Whilst dismantling ‘authenticity’ can be a useful means of challenging certain political programmes, as Hansen has effectively illustrated in his work on the BJP, we need to consider why certain kinds of identifications can become so appealing at certain moments in time, rather than whether one is more ‘authentic’ than the other.
From economy to culture
The splintering of Indian South African identity in contemporary South Africa may well be a symptom of the political discourses and economic strategies adopted by the post-Apartheid state. Identities that were negotiated in various complex ways during Apartheid have continued to be valorised through the aegis of ‘cultural diversity’ under the banner of the ‘rainbow nation’. An aspect of this is the consolidation of liberal restructuring programmes that have singularly failed to equitably redistribute resources, and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The ideological ‘supplement’ to this is the celebration, and, supposedly, respect, of difference, where many in the African National Congress and its allies in the South African Communist Party seem to have largely abandoned the politics of class for the politics of multiculturalism. A commitment to multiculturalism is written into the constitution, and can be seen as a part of the move to a new identity politics, which has accompanied the naturalisation of the liberal democratic state. As the philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has observed, the new politics is not necessarily a politics of emancipation, but rather something that papers over the further extension of globalisation and its negative effects. In the name of celebrating difference and diversity, there is really “a will to mastery” whose project is the subordination and continued exploitation of the South, “and all of those who continue to be oppressed by capitalism”. According to Zizek, it is an end of politics, the post-politics of dispossession by multinational states: “There is a danger that issues of economic exploitation are converted into problems of cultural tolerance”. If the New South Africa is ‘non-racial’ because of the defeat of Apartheid, then racial difference has been replaced by cultural difference, which is understood on almost the same terms as biological ideas of race. Difference is emphasised at the expense of any sense of universality, which in turn has encouraged blaming the ‘culture’ of different groups for varying degrees of economic success or failure, inclusion or exclusion. Zizek suggests that multiculturalism involves both a renunciation of other possibilities, and an acceptance of the status quo, which brings not only an ideological closure, but a naturalisation of global capitalism. Cultural diversity thus becomes a part of a liberal discourse which promotes the construction of cultural difference under the guise of tolerance, where exclusion and marginalisation is no longer the effect of racism, but of culture itself. In this climate, we can see the proliferation of narratives of ‘difference’, each embedded in their own idea of ‘authenticity’.
If some Indians have yet again been driven to look beyond the borders of South Africa to make sense of who they are, this time around, they have different political affiliations, and are negotiating with very different forms of Indian nationalism than those articulated in the first half of the 20th century. The India that currently provides a “resting place for the imagination” is not the India envisaged in 1947. Would it be legitimate to argue that one form of Indian nationalism is more ‘authentic’ than the other, or is it more relevant to ask what are the material consequences of certain types of political action under the umbrella of nationalism as a political project? In this context, the politics of the post-colonial world seems “to be spawning (its) own neo-nationalist responses” which are increasingly embedded in the politics of the right. If, in previous times, diaspora could be associated with a wandering which was defined, in part, through its relationship to a spiritual homeland, in the contemporary world, diaspora has become increasingly defined by its relationship to the nation state, of being within and outside borders. That Zionism began to express itself as a movement of national liberation, which could be resolved through the establishment of a nation state, was not a pre-given, but a product of a certain historical moment. This should also serve as a stark reminder that there is no guarantee that any ‘true heirs’ of loss and suffering will fight for projects of universal emancipation. If, in the first half of the twentieth century, the realisation of the nation state in the fight against colonialism left some potential for its alignment with a progressive politics, that moment is well and truly passed. However, post-colonial neo-nationalisms also serve to illustrate, that despite globalisation, the nation state is still a powerful mediator of international politics.
As so many of our ‘radical subjects’ have been unceremoniously shooed of the centre stage of history, perhaps the search for diasporic legitimacy is really about finding a resting place for our own imaginations. However, in conclusion, perhaps the Jewish experience can provide a template for the idea of diaspora after all, if it is conceived as a complex phenomenon, an immanence which sometimes crystallises, and then dissolves; where ‘homeland’ has been a spiritual imagining as well as a material place, where the idea of diaspora has been utilised for radical as well as reactionary political agendas.
~This essay from our web-exclusive was first published in Himal Southasian, September 2003. Watch out for Thomas Blom Hansen’s response to this essay in our next posting in the web-exclusive package Diaspora: Southasia abroad.
~Parvathi Raman is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).