On the question of race
Are the Indians in Africa the Jews of 1930s Europe?
The Indian diasporic community in Africa is often compared to Jews in Europe in the 1930s, but this isn’t an entirely accurate comparison. While both were predominantly tight-knit business communities often based on family-owned and run enterprises, and were criticised for this by groups that considered them “outsiders” in the countries of their residence, the comparison ends there for two major reasons. First, there was no systematic state-led pogrom/annihilation conducted
against Indians at any point, although of course Indians in Zanzibar and Uganda were expelled but they were not confronted by the kind of violence that Jews faced. Second, Indians had a homeland, India, to which they often returned before 1947, and at independence they had the option to take up Indian citizenship. Although the majority did not exercise this right, unlike Jews in the 1930s for whom the homeland was an imagined aspiration yet to be fulfilled, Indians had a civilisation homeland that became a sovereign nation-state to which they had the option of return, temporarily and permanently.
Is it essentially a race problem? Are Indians everywhere an insulated, confused race?
I would approach this question by asking what is <g data-gr-id="110">race</g>? Is it something inherent, given, unchanging? Is it a social construct, changing? Is it how we see ourselves? Is it how others perceive us? Or is it a combination of the above? For the Indian diaspora in Africa that travelled back and forth across the Indian Ocean, India was never completely separate from their everyday lives. This connection revealed itself in tangible ways: in the way business networks were formed, cultural identity was experienced (especially relating to religion, marriage, food, and dress), and in a self-identification with this Indian homeland as a “civilisational” homeland.
This was often expressed in racial terms, especially in British colonies such as Kenya where the colonial state categorised subjects along racial lines. However, this did not mean that Indians did not associate themselves with Kenya. They did and they continue to. Kenya is very much their homeland, a place where they belong and express a desire to belong. Between 1920 and 1970 close to 35 percent of the entire population of Nairobi, the colonial and, later, national Capital, was Indian. In my <g data-gr-id="107">book</g> I argue that while India is their civilisational homeland, Kenya is their territorial homeland. The question they face, however, is this – is it possible to be both Indian (in the <g data-gr-id="113">civilisational</g> sense) and Kenyan (in the territorial/political/nationalist sense). This is an unresolved dilemma because it depends on how Kenya defines itself as a nation, and whether that definition accommodates dual-identities. It also gets complicated because Indians <g data-gr-id="111">form</g> the business class in Kenya and protests against material inequality conflates race and class. My book explores this entanglement.
If Sana Aiyar could go back in time and rewrite history, what would she change?
At independence, Kenya and India defined their nationhood in narrow terms. In Kenya, a racialised nationalist political discourse identified nation with race in the slogan “Africa for Africans” while India embraced difference (religious, ethnic, regional) in her definition of nationhood but limited citizenship to those who lived within the nation’s territorial boundaries. Both these definitions narrowed the geographical and political imagination and options of Indians in Kenya who for centuries straddled homelands on both sides of the Indian Ocean and for whom the singularly of post-colonial citizenship forced a choice between their civilisational and territorial homeland which had never been separated in this way for them. If I were to go back in history, I would revisit India and Kenya’s decision to impose racial and territorial boundaries on political belonging to accommodate the multiple affiliations and imaginations of those for whom the Indian Ocean united rather than divided their two homelands.
Is the Indian Diaspora really contributing to the success of the host country? If yes then why are they not recognised by the indigenous population for their efforts?
Indians in Kenya, much like other communities, certainly play an active role in the economic, cultural, and political dynamics of their country, and this is very much recognised by their fellow compatriots. However, the nature of this contribution – its positive and negative aspects – are debated and contested. I mentioned the issue of inequality earlier and the way in which class and race are conflated. On the other hand, Indians in emphasising their contribution to Kenya often end up highlighting their <g data-gr-id="82">civilisational</g> contributions reaching back into history noting that Indian traders brought currency-based trade to Kenya, and emphasise the continuing economic contribution made by Indians. This framing, however, exposes a racial hierarchy that places Indians and their civilisation genius above indigenous Africans. It is this “othering” of Africans that creates resentment which, combined with class conflict, gets politicised.
Has India ever really reached out to the Kenyan Asians?
Yes, absolutely. The political link between India and Kenya was a very strong one throughout the twentieth century. Before independence, the main Indian political organisation in Kenya, the East Africa Indian National Congress, worked closely with the All India National Congress, the All-India-Muslim League, and other nationalist political groups in India in demanding rights from the colonial government. At independence, Nehru hand-picked Apa Pant as India’s first high commissioner to Kenya where he worked with Indian and African political leaders who were fighting for independence in Kenya. But, as I mentioned earlier, post-colonial India defined nationalism in purely territorial terms, and not only did India rule out dual-citizenship for Indians overseas, the Prime Minister encouraged the Indian diaspora to integrate completely in their places of residence in political terms. This meant that at independence, when the post-colonial states passed legislation that discriminated against Indian businesses, India did it and could not intervene because the legislation did not <g data-gr-id="96">effect</g> Indian citizens, only Kenyan citizens of Indian origin over whom India had no jurisdictional authority. Moreover, in the interest of Afro-Asian solidarity, the Indian state shifted its focus on the Kenyan state rather than its diaspora at an official level.
Finally, what’s the story behind your last book? What inspired you to pursue this project?
Between 1830 and 1939, 29 million Indians left the shores of India and migrated across the British empire. About 1 million settled in colonies across the empire over which the sun never set.
Gandhi was among the most famous of such sojourners.
His 20 years in South Africa are well known, but I was curious about the political choices made by those migrants who settled in their places of arrival and did not return as Mahatmas to their place of departure.
This led me to conduct research on Indians in Kenya – a community I first encountered in Britain while I was a student there and about whom I knew nothing. My book is the story of Indians in Kenya, their connection with India, and the political world they operate in across the Indian Ocean.