Having observed and interacted with Indian immigrants in the UK and US for four decades, the writer chronicles the two waves of Indian migration to each country and the passage from anonymity to notability
BY AJIT KUMAR JHA
My first brush with the Indian diaspora occurred between 1983 and 1995, when I joined Oxford University and then the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Studying, teaching and freelancing as a correspondent in the media, I had my first interactions with Indian immigrants settled abroad. I wrote “A portrait of Southall” for The Hindustan Times’ Sunday cover story and later a series of reports from LA on the Indian diaspora for India Today from 1992 to ’95.
Cut to the present: With the selection of Rishi Sunak as prime minister of Britain on Diwali 2022, the Indian diaspora has come full circle in the UK. In the US, the election of Kamala Harris as vice president in President Joe Biden’s team has buoyed the Indian diaspora.
I use Sunak and Harris as news pegs in this article to trace the history of the Indian diaspora, and its social trajectory from dull anonymity to remarkable notability.
The ‘coronation’ of Sunak has been celebrated with considerably more pomp and pageantry than the ascension of King Charles III, globally and within the UK. The main reason is that while the ascension of Charles was a foregone conclusion, a typical tradition of hereditary monarchy, Sunak’s elevation first as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Boris Johnson’s team and later as PM is a true saga of grit, determination, struggle, merit, audacity and ambition.
Sunak’s extraordinary rise in the corporate world and politics have become the most apt metaphor for the evolution of the Indian diaspora and its rapid rise from modest origins to commanding heights. The global spread of the Indian diaspora and its phenomenal prosperity, at times in the face of racial prejudice, is as poignant as it is paradoxical.
Ironically, in the UK, while more Indians vote for the left-wing Labour Party, it is the Conservative Party which has provided more space, and more powerful positions, to the prosperous Indian communities which immigrated during the second wave of migration. In the US, the Democratic Party has trumped the Republicans in terms of providing more space and power to Indian origin immigrants.
Two waves of Indian migration
Historically, there were two waves of Indian migration to the UK and US. Despite distinct differences, given they were two countries separated by the Atlantic and that there were two different waves, there is yet a parallel trend in the two stories.
The first wave of Indian migration to the UK started in the 1940s when migrants were recruited directly from India by successive governments in the UK to fill the severe labour shortage that resulted from the Second World War. In the US and Canada, the first wave of migration of Indian indentured labour to farms in California and Surrey was in an earlier era, from 1906 to 1926. The Great Depression of 1929 dampened the flow of migrant labour from India. So Indian migration to the US was lower from 1926 to 1946, compared to the earlier period.
The first wave of immigrants to the US, from Punjab, settled in California as indentured farm labour and construction labour for the Hoover Dam in Nevada. They settled in Southern California towns near the Mexican border and in Stockton and Yuba City in Northern California. A large number of Indian migrants moved northwards, settling in the farms of Surrey, next to Vancouver in Canada.
The Mexidus of California
Since California had miscegenation laws until 1946, whereby a brown or black male could not legally marry a white woman, these labourers were barred from marrying local Caucasian women. With county clerks perceiving similarities in complexion as indicators of belonging to the same race, Punjabi bridegrooms were able to circumvent anti-miscegenation laws and begin family life in America by marrying Mexican brides who were Christians, mostly Catholics.
The mixed community, consisting of Sikh or Hindu husbands and Mexican wives, were locally called Mexidus, a short form for Mexican-Hindus (Hindus here refers to people from Hindustan, including Sikhs). Unique names of Mexidus, such as Fernando Singh and Isobel Kaur Babli, partly Mexican, partly Indian, are common.
About 26,000 registered mixed marriages took place in California between 1906 and 1926. Professor Karen Leonard, an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, wrote a poignant portrait of the Mexidu community in Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican American in 1992.
In the other story, the first wave of migrants to the UK settled in the Midlands city of Birmingham, Manchester and northwest England, working in foundries, textile mills and the manufacturing industry. Fighting against racial prejudice, these blue-collar migrants built Britain’s anti-racist and trade union movements in the 1950s and ’60s, inspired by anti-colonial struggles back home. Indian immigrant communities act as significant vote banks for Labour in the Midlands.
The second wave of migrants to the US, university-educated, white-collar, some entrepreneurs, more salaried professionals in the tech industry, arrived after President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Naturalisation Act of 1965. It changed the face of America, especially its racial contours.
From 2000, the new immigrants—doctors, engineers, techies, managers and IT professionals—came in droves, first as students to top Ivy League universities and later to tech industry jobs as American H1 visa holders, green card holders and American citizens.
The Tamilian mother of US Vice President Kamala Harris, the Punjabi parents of former Governor of Louisiana Piyush Bobby Jindal and several other prominent politicians belong to the second wave.
Second wave UK migrants: Twice migrants
The second wave of Indian migrants to Britain are called “twice migrants”, those who arrived from East Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, having been expelled or encouraged to leave by the newly independent regimes in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The families of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and former Home Secretary Priti Patel were part of the “twice migrant second wave”.
Some significant second-wave migrants were from India: businessmen who prospered in the UK. The billionaire club includes Laxmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal, Vedanta Chairman Anil Agarwal, Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Caparo group chief Baron Swraj Paul, the Hindujas and other business magnates.
When this group of Gujarati, Punjabi and other Indian traders and entrepreneurs arrived in the UK, many brought considerable wealth they had amassed in Africa. English-educated, the majority of migrants had professional degrees, and technical and managerial education. These advantages virtually guaranteed the economic success of East African Indians in Britain, especially in the retail businesses of former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “enterprise economy”, for which they soon became reputed.
The Tory leadership of that era identified this demographic as potential voters for the Conservative Party. From the 1980s, the Tories began to court an imagined “Indian community”, limited to East African Indians who had settled in and around London. The Tories showcased successful Indian entrepreneurs as evidence of what could be achieved under a free market Conservative government. In 1988, Thatcher welcomed the new Indian high commissioner to Britain with the words: “We so much welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, hard work and of resolve to make a better life … you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative, which benefit not just you and your families but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole.”
Prime Minister Sunak’s pharmacist mother, general physician father and Priti Patel’s news agent-owning parents of Gujarati origin were typical of their generation.
Fast forward to 2010, and the Conservatives held 30 percent of the British Indian vote. Today, British Indians are the most pro-Conservative ethnic minority after the Jewish community. After decades of gradual advance, this number soared to 40 percent in 2017. As the Tories chased a realignment towards white northern voters based on racial scaremongering, support in constituencies with high Indian populations increased substantially.
In the past few years, British Indians made up 15 percent of the Tory cabinet under Johnson. Today, a British citizen of Indian origin occupies 10 Downing Street while Braverman is home secretary. From ayahs and lascars, indentured labour on California and Surrey farms, and blue collar workers in the Midlands, the Indian diaspora has graduated to commanding heights—as prime minister in the UK, vice president in the US. Key political leaders and CEOs of top multinational corporations in both the UK and US are of Indian origin today.
(Ajit Kumar Jha, Editor-in-Chief of Pravasi Indians, was trained at JNU, Oxford and UCLA. He was Editor, Research with India Today and Outlook and Editor of the Qatar Tribune and Oman Tribune, and Resident Editor of The Times of India, The Indian Express and Hindustan Times.)