The Banyan Tree: Overseas Emigrants from India, Pakistan, & Bangladesh

Founded in 1957, Southall, Britain's Indian Workers' Association

A few weeks ago we all witnessed an explosion of rage on the part of the disenfranchised youth of England. Commentators were quick to denounce the fires, broken windows, and smashed shops as the workings of a handful of classless thugs. While this explanation is understandably convenient for power centers, it obscures the very real social dynamics of the outrage, the soil in which their anger took root. British historian, Hugh Tinker, provides a detailed analysis of the composition of this soil, careful to recognize each seed,  nutrient, mineral, and most importantly, each source of blight.

From the mass expulsion of thousands of Indians under the rule of Uganda’s Idi Amin, to the pillaging of Indian communities in the predominantly Buddhist Burma, Tinker’s keen perception of the sociological shifts that have shaped the “advanced” societies of the West are instructive in deciphering the challenges that face us today. Of the many injustices that are illustrated in this text, some stand out with a special poignancy. Take for example the Kennedy administration’s decision to undermine the democratically elected government of British Guiana under the farcical policy of “proportional representation”, a more respectable sounding and subtle antecedent to the “free and fair” elections that we currently sponsor in places like Haiti and the Gaza strip.

At the advice of his chief adviser Arthur Schlesinger, who remarked that “a British Guiana under Burnham [the Black leader] . . . would cause us many fewer problems than a British Guiana under Jagan [the East Indian leader]”–a man who Kennedy and Schlesinger called “naive” and “romantic” because of his ardent vow to “adhere to the principles of parliamentary democracy”–Kennedy went on to lend his uncritical support to Burnham who “made a much better impression.”

JFK and the "naive" Cheddi Jagan at the White House

Following this meeting with the emperor of the empire, Burnham satisfied US hopes that he would cause “fewer problems”; namely, by targeting areas of Guiana where Indians were in a minority and carrying out violent assaults against civilians and burning down their houses. This campaign of plunder ended with 1,300 Indians being evacuated from their homes and our buddy Burnham courageously declaring “if it comes to a showdown, the East Indians must remember that we could do more killing than they could.” If I gained anything from this particular episode of The Oppression Chronicles it’s that the US is truly colorblind, at least when it comes to consolidating power.

LBJ and Mr. Forbes Burnham

Apart from this event that has been washed from history, are several other facts worthy of our attention. I should add that the  overwhelming bulk of the text uses the Indian as the focal point, the archetype of the rootless, alienated Other, perennially searching for a way to recapture their “Indianess.” Tragically,  the chess game of economics coupled with the insatiable appetite for cheap labor have banished these expatriates to a life of exile and second class citizenship. If the ugly legacy of racism and discrimination doesn’t bear this out, the empirical data provides ample evidence. For example, school enrollment figures in 1949 Malaysia show a total of 239,000 students enrolled in Malaysian schools, 203,000 in Chinese schools, and 91,000 in English schools, while a mere 39,000 were enrolled in Indian schools. This was only two years after a 1947 poll showed Indians comprising 9.7% of the rural population and 13.8% of the urban population (23.5% of the total population). Conversely, the English comprised less than 3% of the population yet they outnumbered Indians in school enrollment by 52,000 in 1949. In lieu of these grotesque inequalities, there were also inequalities of the sort that had an impact on Malays, Chinese, and Indians alike. In Chapter 4 titled “An Auxiliary Minority”, Hugh reveals the startling statistic that in this same period 77.7% of the rubber estates, Malaysia’s “premier industry”, were foreign-owned while Malays owned a meager 0.3 percent of the industry. I think it would be safe to say that this was an incarnation of neoliberalism before neoliberalism, a premature birth of the most brutal variety.

The book ends with a smaller analysis of the many vicissitudes that emerged between Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, and the momentous rise of the British Sikh communities as a class of professional engineers and professors. At this time those southeast Asians who had up till then emigrated to the European metropolis or East Africa began looking westward toward the United States. In the words of Mr. Tinker, “it was no longer very chic to have a relation working in England, but America.”

As a whole, the scope of Mr. Tinker’s book is so vast and the understanding so layered that it’s nearly impossible to do justice to it in a simple review. Books of this kind merit consumption, digestion, and sufficient time to adjust to the stubborn prejudices of our intellectual physiology. Nonetheless, the perseverance and integrity of these immigrant (and emigrant) people is palpable enough to wipe from the pages, and is no more beautifully captured than in the sentiments of British Muslims while enduring the fast of Ramadan. Tinker points out that “British Muslims celebrate the fast of Ramadan with painful rigor, even amid the heat and hectic pace of the production line of  the blast furnace. Most of them insist that if they die their bodies should be buried in the homeland, Dar-ul-Islam and not Dar-ul-Harb, the land of strife and contention, England, though the Koran insists that the body should be buried immediately after death.” This book gave me a light flavor of Dar-ul-Islam but unlike those deceased bodies, this text is intensely alive in its content, and therefore it would be a grave error to consign it to an immediate burial.


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