The contribution of Tamils in the economic and cultural growth of Singapore, Malaysia and Burma, and indirectly, the global landscape, has largely been relegated to the footnotes of history.Prof Amrith, who grew up in Singapore but has his roots in Tamil Nadu, said he was surprised to find hardly anything written about Tamils’ South Asian connections. “My parents moved to Singapore as professional migrants in the 1980s, when I was very young. Throughout my life, I had deep family connections in Tamil Nadu as my grandparents and extended family was here. This gave background awareness that India and South East Asia had deep connections, with people moving back and forth. When I started studying South Asian history in the UK, I was really surprised to find nothing had been written about these connections,” said this academician.
According to Prof Amrith, these histories were often forgotten as the migrants left no record of their lives. “In case of Indians who moved to South Africa, alongside the indentured workers of the sugar plantation, there was a large component of intellectuals and merchants. That is why the South African experience is much more written about and Mahatma Gandhi ended up there,” he noted.
The scale of mass migration around Bay of Bengal was enormous. “Around 28 million people crossed the Bay of Bengal between 18401940, most of them after 1880s to work in the plantations,” he pointed out, attributing this mass migration due to a combination of environmental and economic factors. “In 1870s, the famine in India caused large-scale migration to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Equally, there was a slower process of poverty and rural economy, which led people to migrate. Circular migration — repetitive movement of the migrant worker between home and host country — was the pattern,” he added.
The early years of migration, said Prof Amrith, were fraught with risks. “The death rates were high and the life expectancy was low. Malaria caused terrible deaths and migrants were overworked. There were court cases of complaints relating to physical abuse, which were widespread and horrific. As we moved into the 20th century, with more medical attention on the ships and on the plantations, the death rates came down. Plantation owners realised that loss of life was not helping their cause. They started treating the migrants better – living conditions improved marginally, though remained very harsh,” he said.
Prof Amrith highlighted the role Tamils played in building the countries they migrated to. “Though indirect, Indian Tamil labour was overwhelmingly responsible for the production of rubber in Malaysia. When Ford set up in the 1930s, 80 per cent of the rubber supplied to the US came from Malaysia. So that is to say that Tamil labour, by working in these plantations in Malaysia, indirectly contributed to this. The global economy of rice production by the end of the 19th century was led by Burma, which was partly due to the funding by Chettiars, who helped smaller companies expand their production,” he explained.
The turning point in the history of Tamils in South East Asia came during social activist and politician Periyar E. V. Ramasamy’s visit to Malaysia and Singapore. “Periyar’s visit brought about a political awakening and enlightenment. He not just visited the capital cities of Penang and Singapore but also travelled to rubber plantations and interacted with the workers. He addressed large crowds on social and caste reforms. It sparked off the development of local Tamil movement. He acted as a stimulus to develop organisations and institutions such as Tamil Reform Association. He was the real stimulus to a number of local Tamil newspapers, which were starting to sprout up in 1930. His visit, directly or indirectly, started labour activism in Tamil workers. In 1941, strikes in rubber plantations spearheaded by radicals were a part of the Tamil movement,” said the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of History, Harvard University.
Prof Amrith also revealed that Tamils contributed significantly to popular culture and development of Singapore and Malaysia. “The role of Tamils can be seen in the development of film industry, print culture and realm of theatre as well as popular movies. In 1935, a newspaper called Tamil Murasu was started in Singapore, which exists even today. You can see Tamil influence everywhere — in the names of the streets, temples and mosques and a major part of landscape and cultural heritage. In 2008, Penang was recognised as a world heritage site. It was the Tamil influenced architecture and landscape which gave it that recognition,” he said. Prof Amrith, who authored Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, said that in the 1930s, Chinese co-existed with Indians and Malays. “There are dargas in Penang to the saint Shahul Hamid of Nagore, visited by all communities. Tamil culture shaped these societies’ interaction with other cultures in an open way,” he added.
However, this cultural melange did little to loosen the shackles of caste, which the migrants carried to foreign shores. “There was widespread belief that the migration tended to loosen the caste structure. But there is enough evidence of deep-rooted caste system prevailing in South East Asia. This was obvious in the presence of caste segregated housing in the plantations, as there was separate housing for Dalits,” he said.
The entire world of free circulation of migration workers came crashing down in the 1940s. “During the Indian independence, both sides had misgivings. In Malaysia, some local politicians argued that the influx of Indian workers was taking employment away from the locals. India too felt that its labourers should return and take part in the developmental activities happening in the country. During his visit to Malay in 1946, Nehru said the migrants have to get used to their host country. This was easier said than done. Even if they wanted to remain in the country of migration, they were not welcomed as a citizen. Singapore had the best outcome, where gaining citizenship was relatively easier. The most painful part for many was to renounce their Indian citizenship. Before the 1940s, the question of citizenship had not applied. After new borders and restrictions, it became a difficult choice,” said this researcher.
Prof Amrith pointed out that in course of global history, migration was normal. “Political view of migration today is that of something unusual, which is not true. Political mobilisation against refugees lacks a more nuanced perspective,” he concluded.
Untold stories of the Death Railway
Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North , which won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, delves on the experiences of an Australian doctor, captured by the Japanese troops and made to work on Burma Railway, also known as ‘Death Railway’ that uses forced labour. However, what is not known is the fact that many Tamils too died constructing this railway line.
Prof Amrith said, “This is yet another story told from the perspective of allied soldiers who were captured, most of them British or Australian. Yet, up to a hundred thousand and more Tamil workers died there. Most of the labour was by Tamil workers in the 1940s. Their stories remain untold.”