20 May, 2022


Of Cyber-Nationalism & Tea Parties: New & Old Diasporas Of South–South Asia

By Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in the translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained. …

[W]e will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

~ Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

You lived intensely with others, only to have them disappear overnight, since the shadow class was condemned to movement. The men left for other jobs, towns, got deported, returned home, changed names…

~ Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

2017 is a year of anniversaries in South Asia: 70 years of Indian independence; 100th year of the abolition of indentured labour, and 150 years of Ceylon tea celebrated by the Sri Lanka Tea Board with the release of a silver coin and tea parties.

Viewed as a ‘new system of slavery’ that followed the official abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1838, indentured labour migration was in turn abolished 100 years ago in 1917. By the time of its abolition, nearly 3.5 million people from the Indian subcontinent had been, more or less, legally ‘trafficked’ (to use contemporary United Nations lingo) across the Indian Ocean and the globe, albeit after many had signed an ‘Agreement’ (whence the term Girmitiya derives), to perform contract labour for three to five years in plantations owned and operated by the British Raj.[1] Whether in neighbouring Ceylon, Malaya, or further afield in Fiji, Africa or the Americas, from Jamaica, to Trinidad and Tobago in the ‘West Indies’, to Surinam, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Mauritius, first-generation ‘coolies’—the colonial-era name given to bonded labour migrants and folks recruited under the kangani system—had little fore knowledge of the slave-like conditions in which they would be transported, live and labour in distant lands.[2] Nor did they have many choices; many were fleeing endemic famine, given the changing political economy of British India.

Indentured migrants from India and their descendants—who worked lucrative sugar, rubber, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tea plantations in the tropics of the world—‘played an essential role in the development of global capitalism’, as Amrith (2013) has noted. Yet, the oral history and literary record of generations of Indian indentured diasporic communities echo narratives of social suffering and the struggle for agency against victimhood among people trapped in the colonial plantation economy. Their literature and songs describe loss and longing for an increasingly ‘imaginary homeland’, similar to those portrayed in the writings of African–American descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, familiar in the literary worlds of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.[3] In academic writing and ethnography, indentured migration from India has been viewed mainly as a process of cynical exploitation of passive labour under colonialism, while migrants and their descendants were seen as victims who had little control over the decision to cross the kala pani (the taboo of the sea that stripped the elite of their caste status), and the outcomes of their migration.[4] At the same time, the south Indian or Dravidian labour diaspora that includes Tamil, Telugu, Malayalee and Kanada migrants has been marginal in studies of the Indian Diaspora with a few notable and recent exceptions. Until recently, diasporic descendants of south Indian indentured labour were largely ignored by the Indian state, even as it reached out to Silicon Valley NRIs (Non-Resident Indians). Remarkably, it was only in May 2017 that an Indian prime minister chose to visit and acknowledge the Hill County descendants of south Indian indentured labour in Sri Lanka.

However, on 3 September 2016, nearly 100 years after the abolition of indenture, a group of Malaysians, mainly of south Indian indentured migrant origin, held demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur (KL) where they tried to assault the chief monk of the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in Sentul. They were protesting against the former war-winning Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Malaysia to attend the 9th International Conference of Asian Political Parties, and his reception as a VIP by the Malaysian state. The group of about 50 protesters had gone to the Sentul Buddhist temple when rumours of Rajapaksa’s visit began to spread. The protests gained coverage in the national press, both in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.[5]

Why were diasporic Indians in Malaysia protesting before a Buddhist temple patronised by a former prime minister of Sri Lanka? What were the motives for the attempted assault; and why had the three-decades-long armed conflict (1983–2009), waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for a separate state for the Tamil minority in north-east Sri Lanka that ended seven year earlier amidst allegations of war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan State and LTTE, elicit such a broad-based support from south Indian overseas communities throughout the world? The September 2016 protests in KL were reminiscent of other protests by the Tamil diaspora held in the spotlight of the international media in major world capitals from New Delhi to London, Toronto and Washington in May 2009, during the last days of the war in Sri Lanka—when the LTTE, listed as one of the world’s most dangerous terror groups, was destroyed by the island’s military. A troubled ‘peace’ had since dawned in the island.

This paper explores the political economy of “cyber-nationalism” among South-South Asia’s new and old diaspora communities, and traces the emergence of a global Tamil ‘ethnoscape’: It suggests that the ‘Tamil national question’ in Sri Lanka, during the LTTE’s search for Tamil Eelam, re-configured and boosted the diasporic identities and activism of significant groups of descendants of indentured South Indian migrant communities, many of which that constitute an emergent global ‘precariat’ (Standing, 2011), even as Tamil Eelam morphed into an ‘imaginary homeland’ seemingly inclusive of an older south Indian diaspora in Malaysia and beyond. This was arguably due to the insecure and precarious economic and political status of many south Indian diasporic communities which constitute ‘minority groups’ with diminished citizenship, economic rights and cultural entitlements relative to majority groups in postcolonial states like Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Kanaganayakam has noted the burgeoning of creative writing during the three decades of political struggle in the island in what we may term a global Tamil ethnoscape (2009: 81). Simultaneously, diasporic descendants of Indian indentured labour migrants seemed to emerge as a ‘new dangerous class’, even as their ancestors may well be viewed, retrospectively, as archetypal precursors of the contemporary global precariat.[6]

Standing (2011) termed the precariat ‘an emerging global mass class’ characterised by precarious employment, debt and insecurity. Members of the precariat, potentially the democratic majority as well as the ‘new dangerous classes’, are diverse: immigrant Uber drivers, millennial interns, part-time lecturers, temporary factory workers, and the cleaners and couriers of the ‘gig economy’—the old working class, forced into temporary and casual labour. Many protestors at the Sentul Buddhist temple were descendants of indentured labour communities that had been ghettoised in British rubber plantations in Malaysia, where they were segregated from wider society, denied land ownership and given second-class citizenship rights. Many had subsequently managed to migrate to urban areas, where they were free from the strictures of the colonial plantation economy and were simultaneously upwardly mobile. Nevertheless, they were also treated as second-class citizens, as non-Bhumiputra (sons of the soil) members of an Indian-origin ethnic minority in Malaysia. They belonged to a class that lived precarious lives in the urban postcolony, having escaped the stigma of coolie labour in the plantation economy that had denied them rights to own land and craft alternative livelihoods, even as many remained trapped in precarious jobs and urban poverty. In a sense, they were, and are, ‘inheritors of loss’, the losers of (neo)liberal globalisation and the contemporary economic restructuring of labour. Some were members of the Indra movement of Malaysian Indian minority rights. Their activism and resistance to the long-sustaining structures of economic inequality and political marginalisation were increasingly visible in other resistance movements, such as the occupy movement and ‘days of rage’, by migrants, refugees and diasporas who increasingly  constitute ‘denizens’, rather than citizens of nation states in the context of the ongoing structural adjustment of labour regimes.

The group that attacked the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple was also comprised of members of the Malaysian Indian Progressive Association, the Malaysian Tamilan and the Malaysian Indian Education Transformation Association (MIETA). They began to burn an effigy of Rajapaksa in front of the temple. When the chief monk Sri Saranan, came out of the temple, some individuals had questioned him about Rajapaksa’s arrival, and then abused and punched him. The Sentul police had prevented the crowd from further attacking the monk. The MIETA chairman, A. Elangovan, had later entered the temple along with the police and apologised to the monk. Subsequently, the police told reporters that members of the Light Strike Force and some officers would be stationed at the temple to ensure peace as certain people could turn up with sticks and stones. M. Shammuga, the leader of another group, had said that a vigil would be kept to ensure that Rajapaksa did not make an appearance: ‘Once he (Rajapaksa) comes here, we are going to demonstrate against him so that he will not enter the temple.’

Under Rajapaksa as President, the Sri Lankan military had defeated the LTTE, even as his regime was also accused of war crimes. More significantly, Rajapaksa had destroyed the dream of an ‘imaginary homeland’ that many in the global Tamil diaspora had begun to identify and empathize with, to restore a victim community’s pride, dignity and self-respect. Nationalist pride as well as the circulation of narratives of collective social suffering and victimhood are two sides of a coin. The LTTE’s nationalist struggle for ‘Tamil rights’ became a cause celebre and a lightning rod for resistance, agency and ‘long-distance cyber-nationalism’, structured by the complex play of home- and host-country dynamics of inherited exclusion among diasporic descendants of indentured labour migrants across generations, aided by social media, and new information and communication technologies.

In a sense, the ‘inheritance of loss’ characteristic of many such diasporic communities runs parallel to the inheritance of privilege, termed by Piketty (2013) as ‘patrimonial capitalism’. Piketty demonstrated how the growth of capital dwarfs growth in wages exacerbating inequality in Capital in the 20th century.[7] Then as now, structures of inherited privilege and capital through which elites (as distinguished from the plutocracy) transmit wealth, enables reproduction of the elite class via global structures of power and inequality that also locate the precariat in the neoliberal economic order of things. Standing suggests that the precariat increasingly reacts to deepening global economic inequality, and signals the emergence of new forms of social and political activism, arguably here tangled in trans-national global Tamil diaspora identity politics enabled by new information and communication technologies. It was the existential insecurity of precarious or second-class citizenship in ‘host’ countries, as much as the strength of descendants of the south Indian indentured migrant diaspora that the LTTE was able to mobilise, to pose a formidable challenge to the Sri Lankan state.

Much ink has been spilt on the question of nationalism, including cyber-nationalism; would it die out with globalisation, the migration of peoples, ideas and things, or take new forms? The case of the descendants of the indentured south Indian labour diaspora’s support for the armed struggle, of the LTTE and Ceylonese Tamils against the anti-Tamil discrimination of the postcolonial State in Sri Lanka in these times, suggests that both propositions seem to be true—depending on local context, patrimonies of precarious work, inequity and citizenship, given expanding global patterns of inequality and advances in new communication technologies which enable labour and diasporic networking and activism. At the same time, cyber activism of precariat groups is increasingly conflated by national-security States as ‘security threats’, in the wake of the ISIS recruitment from the Middle East and North African diasporas in Europe. Meanwhile, immigrants and refugees are increasingly perceived in the academic policy optic as possible security challenges also visible in the de-globalisation undercurrent, epitomised by Brexit and Donald Trump.[8]

This paper then develops the concept of ‘precarious citizenship’ and a lineage of loss to explain the activism, cyber-nationalism and identity politics of an emergent, not-so-‘dangerous class’ among some South-South Asian migrant communities—past and present, south Indian and Sri Lankan. It maps continuing and new forms of social, political and economic marginalisationand activism among diasporic descendants of south Indian indentured labour migrants, and sheds light on new forms of activism, agency and networks among diverse groups of South–South Asian migrants, past and present, from India and Sri Lanka who share common Dravidian languages and religious practices, even as they are also divided by class, caste, generational, regional and national identities. At the same time, we may reflect on Sri Lanka’s and South Asia’s post-colonial present: Particularly, in the context of complaints by Sri Lankan tea exporters that the tea Cess tax charged by the Government of Sri Lanka is excessive and has not been used to improve the tea sector. Perhaps the Tea Cess tax would best be used to provide land rights and decent homes for the people that had for generations carried the tea economy, and at times indeed the national economy of Sri Lanka when foreign currency was hard to come on their backs – the Hill country Tamils of Lanka.

Malaysia 2016: The Political Economy Of Cyber-Nationalism In The Afterlife Of Empire 

A day after the events at the Putra Centre and Sentul, Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, the Sri Lankan envoy to Malaysia, was assaulted by a group of people at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). He was there to see off visiting Sri Lankan Minister Daya Gamage and Deputy Minister Anoma Gamage. Fearing for his safety, Ansar later requested the court to move the trial on his assault from the court in Sepang District to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. He believed that his safety could not be guaranteed if he were to attend the trial in the Sepang Sessions Court as witness, because large groups of Tamils had gathered there during the last two case managements. Tamil businessmen of Indian origin—A. Kalaimughilan, 26; V. Balamurugan, 33; and V. Ragunathan, 38—had claimed the right to trial in the Sepang Sessions Court the previous year on charges of assaulting Ansar. The High Commissioner said he was still traumatised by the brutal attack on him at KLIA, a public area which ought to have had tight security measures.

Remarkably, none of the attackers were of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan origin, as a debate on the incident in the Sri Lankan Parliament revealed, with Tamil National Alliance leader, R. Sambanthan, being at pains to stress that Sri Lankan Tamils (including the Sri Lankan diaspora) were not returning to violence against the Sri Lankan state and its overseas representatives.

The passions that the conflict in Sri Lanka raised among Malaysians of Indian origin had much to do with a sense of marginalisation within the Malay polity displaced in sympathy towards real and perceived discrimination experienced by Sri Lankan fellow Tamils, as much as a sense of pan-Tamil linguistic nationalism and the play of ethnic identity politics in Malaysia. Indians form the third-largest ethnic group in Malaysia after the Malays and the Chinese. Malaysia is home to one of the largest populations of overseas Indians, constituting 7 per cent of the Malaysian population, 90 per cent of whom are Tamils. Often, they materially supported the violent armed struggle of the LTTE. The head of the LTTE’s international wing was arrested in Malaysia, where he had lived for many years, deported to Sri Lanka and placed under house arrest.

Ironically, rather than join the LTTE’s struggle for a separate state, the leadership of the Indian indentured labour Tamils in the hills of Sri Lanka have consistently struggled to belong in the Sri Lankan state ever since they were initially disenfranchised in 1948 (Bass, 2013). It was the indigenous Ceylonese Tamils of Lanka, whose formal citizenship and belonging in the postcolonial State was not in question—who rejected the state because of real and perceived discrimination by the ethnic majority Sinhala Buddhists—who launched a struggle for a separate state in north-east Sri Lanka. On the other hand, Indian indentured migrants, called Hill Tamils or Malayakam or hill Tamils in Sri Lanka (who were disenfranchised by the postcolonial state’s infamous Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 on the grounds that they were Indian, but were later granted citizenship on the intervention of India under the Sirima–Shastri Pact), who steadfastly struggled for acceptance, national belonging and full citizenship in the postcolonial state of Sri Lanka (like their kin in Malaysia), rather than reject the state and struggle for a separate state (Tamil Eelam). The political leaders of Indian labour migrants in Sri Lanka, such as Ceylon Workers’ Congress’ (CWC) Arumugam Thondaman, refused to join the struggle for Tamil Eelam, preferring to engage with the state to broaden the citizenship rights of Indian-origin Tamils of Sri Lanka. This was partly because the indigenous Ceylonese Tamils had worked with the Sinhala majority to pass the Act of 1948 and the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1949 to disenfranchise the Malayakam, mainly due to a fear of the influence of Marxist and leftist ideologies on plantation communities, and also because of the history of caste and class discrimination by Ceylonese Tamils against indentured Indian Tamils settled in the British plantations of the central hills.

During this 30-year war, Tamil refugees and migrants from northeast Sri Lanka or Ceylon Tamils, turned to already established communities and their religious institutions (Hindu kovils) established by the older South Indian indentured labour diaspora throughout the world for assistance, and received ready support, also via Tamil Sangams. The LTTE’s struggles for Tamils in Sri Lanka tapped into a reservoir of sentiment among Malaysians in the Indian indentured labour diaspora because of historical experiences of marginalisation and exploitation, both by the colonial and postcolonial state. Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka from 1980 to 2009 found common cause and shared patterns of Hindu worship with the descendants of Indian indentured labour communities in Malaysia and other parts of the world where they joined the precariat, which shared a common culture. The present forms of labour and life of the precariat, and modern forms of ‘precarious citizenship’ and their resonance with the struggles of other overseas south Indian communities in their host countries, were evident in the sympathy and support that Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE garnered from significant organisations and groups in the global Tamil diaspora. Many migrants of south Indian origin from Malaysia and Indian-origin twice-migrants domiciled in North America, Europe and Australia—displaced from South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania—tended to identify with the LTTE’s project of a separate state for Tamils, arguably displacing some of the sense of marginalisation, social suffering and frustration that they experienced in their respective host/home countries.

The members of the LTTE, which promoted the out-migration and re-settlement of refugees, found sympathy and support from the descendants of south Indian Tamil indentured labourers who continued to be marginalised because of the structure of plantation economy and their ethnic minority status in Malaysia. Thus, in a time of emergency, caste and regional differences that existed between the Ceylonese Tamils and the Malayakam in Sri Lanka were blurred when in the diaspora. In Sri Lanka, too, there was a movement by the planation communities displaced by conflict to the north-east of the island, to areas where the Ceylonese Tamil community constituted a majority.

Arguably, postcolonial Tamil migration from Sri Lanka during war in that country was both a distraction from more local discrimination in countries like Malaysia as much as a cause celebre for agency and activism, for many Malaysians of south Indian origin who had felt the weight of Malay Bhumiputra nationalism. Thus, we may track how the global Tamil diaspora, the majority with roots in south India’s Tamil Nadu, became activists for Ceylonese/Sri Lankan Tamils as a result of various ‘displacements’, mental and material. Our attempt here is to bring into focus an emergent field of global Tamil diaspora activism via the multi-sited tracing of intertwining strands of political agency of communities of precarious citizens—past and present—among old and new South–South Asian diasporas of India and Sri Lanka.

Contemporary Tamil and Dravidian diasporic identity politics in Malaysia and elsewhere was, thus, significantly displaced onto questions of citizenship and the national belonging of Tamils in the postcolonial state of  Sri Lanka. The precarious situation of minority Tamils in Sri Lanka resonated with the insecure precariat conditions of many ethnic minority south Indians in Malaysia and enabled a shared search for a separate state/‘imaginary homeland’ for Tamils in north-east Sri Lanka. Many in the global south Indian indentured labour diaspora, mainly Tamil- and Telugu-speaking communities, had identified with the dream of Tamil Eelam destroyed by Rajapaksa. Thus, the reason adduced for the attack by protestors at Sentul was that they were protesting ‘war crimes’ committed in Sri Lanka during the war against the LTTE, listed at that time as one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world by the Rajapaksa regime, which had since lost power in January 2015.

Significant groups of south Indian descendants of the indentured labour diaspora in countries such as Malaysia, who found common cause and voice in the postcolonial Sri Lankan diasporic struggle for Tamil Eelam, were the losers of neoliberal economic globalisation. They were the inheritors of loss before, during, and after the birth of the modern nation state in the Afro–Asian postcolony. Characterised by precarious citizenship, and exploitative work and living conditions in the plantations’ paternalistic set up, on the edge of debt insecurity and inequality, they joined the precariat as they moved beyond the confines of the plantation. Such conditions increasingly fuelled the political activism of dangerous classes in the global precariat among communities with shared histories of precarity across continents, as the support in modern times garnered by the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle from Malaysian Tamils of Indian origin would indicate.

The south Indian indentured labour diaspora in Malaysia constitutes an ethnic minority community (like their kin in Sri Lanka), and identified with postcolonial Tamil cyber-nationalism in Sri Lanka promoted by the LTTE, giving rise to new forms of agency and activism, political organisation and networking   in the context of new social media and information technologies. It is arguable that a distinct South–South Asian diaspora, which encompasses South India and Sri Lanka, emerged via a pan-Dravida and subaltern or Dalit (caste) struggle of the descendants of indentured labourers, who shared a common sense of belonging with the postcolonial precariat, and found pride and dignity in the Tamil nationalism of the LTTE struggle.

Old and new diasporic communities appear to be drawn to long- distance ethno-religious cyber-nationalism, as they live lives of marginalisation by the nation state and existential insecurity, on the edge of debt. Sometimes they indulge in ‘days of rage’ and protest, even as they are made increasingly insecure by states that tend to distrust minorities, refugees, migrants and diasporas.[9] The notion of ‘precarious citizenship’ that encompasses both economic and political marginalisation and exclusion may explain the enormous support for postcolonial Sri Lankan Tamil cyber-nationalism and a separate state/territory for Tamils in the global South–South Asian indentured labour ‘postcolony’ (akin to the attraction of Palestine/Israel to the besieged European Jew). Shadow lines and histories of sometime mutually reinforcing exclusion and marginalisation (caste, class, gender, ethno-religious) were, in different ways, constitutive to the attraction of Tamil Eelam cyber-nationalism for communities, which, for generations, remained economically, politically and culturally marginalised, given the structure of the postcolonial plantation economy and the rise of postcolonial majoritarian nationalism in countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Here, Indian-origin indentured labour descendants were twice marginalised by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Malay Bhumiputra-ism, with affirmative action or positive discrimination policies for Malays and the majority community. Hence, it is through lineages of dispossession as well as shared cultural factors that we may once again map an emergent global South–South Asian diaspora in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and beyond.

Conclusion: Traversing The Local And The Global 

There were many migrations back and forth across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean-rim countries from South Asia to South-East Asia prior to, during and after the British Raj, and the arrival of the modern nation state in the Indian Ocean region. So, too, were there divergent patterns of struggle for citizenship, accommodation and labour rights in host communities, as in home countries. In colonial times, Ceylonese Tamil migrants to Malaya (including Singapore) tended to be of the professional classes and higher castes who lived in urban centres, and did not often associate with communities of Indian indentured Tamil labour from south India, who tended to be confined within the plantation political economy. Thus, recently, on a state visit to Sri Lanka, the Singapore Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, after visiting Jaffna, the cultural homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils, and meeting with Northern Provincial officials noted that Jaffna held special significance for Singapore, given strong cultural and people-to-people ties. He said that the relationship had evolved from the early days of government administrators to present-day institutions, such as the Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association. The deputy prime minister of Singapore at this time is of Ceylonese Tamil descent, even though Sri Lanka has never had a head or a deputy head of state from its Tamil minority communities. ‘Some of our pioneering leaders in politics, education and medicine have hailed from Jaffna. Today, we are here to strengthen these enduring ties and give back to Jaffna,’ said Dr. Balakrishnan on 19 July 2017.

While many Indian indentured migrants and their children assimilated, joined the professional classes and prospered in host countries, other groups and individuals from the indentured labour diaspora had different experiences, particularly because of the social and spatial segregation of plantations where the majority were ghettoised due to the legal and administrative structure of the plantation economy of the Raj, and the lack of social capital resulting from caste and class marginalisation in their home countries. Moreover, the structure of exclusion in the plantation economy of the British Raj persisted in the postcolony when plantations were transferred to majoritarian states or local elites.

The agency, activism (including long-distance cyber-nationalism) and identity politics of succeeding generations of descendants of south Indian indentured labour migrants, many of whom constitute a modern precariat diaspora in the countries where their ancestors settled and gained citizenship have been long shadowed in the violence and despair of their ancestors’ original displacement. So, too, their struggles for acceptance, belonging, citizenship and labour rights in the countries in which they worked and settled, mainly in tea, rubber or sugar plantations.

Hence, this paper has attempted to explore the spaces of political and economic agency of migrant/refugee communities, and traced the manner in which new migrants may provide new languages of cultural and political agency, activism and empowerment for the descendants of old indentured migrant communities, many of whom were rendered precarious citizens in some of the postcolonial national states where they settled. Of course, the LTTE, with its overseas diasporic organisational reach was a hidden signifier in the regeneration of a South–South Asian diasporic cultural identity and political agency among the Indian-origin precariat in Malaysia.

However, in the final analysis, there is a need to move beyond ‘identity politics’. The ethno-religious cultural analysis of new and old diasporas may blur the inherited economic inequalities that are at the root of diasporic activism and cyber-nationalism, given a ready market for ethno-religious identity politics in the context of the long-anticipated ‘Clash of Civilizations’. The study of diasporic long-distance cyber-nationalism has suffered from too much historical and cultural analysis, and an inadequate analysis of its economic roots. Hence, this paper has attempted to bring into the same frame the political and economic dynamics of apparently ethno-religious identity conflict by locating the attack on the Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple in KL in the dynamics of precariat life and the search for an imagined homeland where political, economic and cultural rights may be restored. In this manner we may trace parallel and intertwined histories of inherited economic and political exclusion, indeed the ‘inheritance of loss’ across generations, whence the modern global precariat may be seen to be produced, locally and culturally. Of course, the growth in trans-national immigrant social networks in an age of new information technology and social media have also enabled the (re)generation and emergence of diasporic activism among long-forgotten diasporas, or new–old diasporas.

Clearly, the diaspora and citizenship are two sides of a coin, and diasporic identities and associated forms of long-distance nationalism tend to wax and wane inversely to the quality of citizenship rights and entitlements, or lack thereof, of members in both home and host country, as I have argued elsewhere (Rajasingham, 2003). The LTTE’s cyber-nationalism and search to secure a separate state/‘imaginary homeland’ for Tamils, albeit in northeast Sri Lanka (given the apparent impossibility of a separate State in Tamil Nadu, India, as Tamil linguistic nationalism was quelled by the Indian state through the externalisation of the border towards north-east Sri Lanka and the fuelling of armed conflict there by the IB [Intelligence Bureau] and RAW [Research and Analysis Wing]) was a surrogate for feelings of displacement and insecurity of the Indian-origin diaspora in Malaysia and other parts of the world where Asian immigrants are being increasingly rendered insecure.

Finally, with a few notable exceptions, academic studies of Indian indentured labour diasporas have tended to focus on north Indian rather than south Indian indentured labour migrations. This paper seeks to locate the experience of south Indian indentured labour migrants and their descendants who occupy a particular (Dravidian) racialised and caste-inflected location in the field of diaspora studies, in the wider context of migration and refugee flows in the postcolonial period from Sri Lanka, which resulted in emergence of a ‘South–South Asian Diaspora’ identity that encompasses Tamil, Telugu, Malayalee, Kannada and other Dravidian migrants from both India and Sri Lanka. At the same time, an attempt has been to contextualise global Tamil nationalism and diaspora activism within labour studies and the global precariat.

We have thus attempted to bring into the same frame different migrations and trans-national flows of migrants from south India and Sri Lanka while following their intersecting organisational networks (Tamil Sangams, Hindu kovils, etc.) and tracing how Indian-origin colonial indentured labour migrant diasporas connected and identified with postcolonial Sri Lankan Tamil diasporic networks. Diasporic descendants of indentured labour migrants from south India found common cause with Sri Lankan Tamil refugees with whom they shared cultural, linguistic and religious affinities. Simultaneously, diverse struggles for the dignity of labour, as well as Tamil and Dalit caste identity, found pride and voice in the LTTE’s nationalist project of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE struggle for a homeland held out the prospect of dignity and respect for Malaysia’s precarious citizens. Simultaneously, this paper has attempted to think before, through and beyond the ‘methodological nationalism’ that renders natural the modern nation state and related ‘territorial nationalisms’, by locating south India and Sri Lanka in a common postcolonial analytical frame. Arguably, it is methodological nationalism that configures a certain scholarly culturalist bias that reinforces the binary analysis of cyber-nationalism as either good or bad. By and large cyber-nationalism has been viewed as negatively promoting nationalism and thus is increasingly securitised. This binary logic may be undone by bringing into the frame both the sending and receiving countries, multiple diasporic imaginations of homelands and tracing how both home- and host-country dynamics of economic inclusion and the exclusion of minority cultural groups impact diaspora identity politics and cyber-nationalism.

The networking and interaction of these, old and new, colonial and postcolonial migrations brings into view the emergence of what may be termed a global South–South Asian diaspora, even as we map differences in these struggles for full citizenship in host countries and the present-day culture of the South Asian diaspora. While many migrants have assimilated into host countries and have become entirely successful immigrants, transcending the challenges and even the stigma of foreignness, others, often twice migrant, continue to struggle for citizenship and belonging, living precarious lives mired in debt and insecure labour on the peripheries of cities. It is in this space of struggle of the precariat that ‘imaginary homelands’, such as Tamil Eelam, may be reborn as cyber-nationalism, enabled by social media and the development of new information and communication systems.

Finally, if India and Indian politics remain central to the imaginary homeland of descendants of the global south Indian indentured labour diaspora created by British colonial plantation economy, the war in Sri Lanka enabled the (re)generation of a common postcolonial South–South Asian Dravidian diasporic cultural identity broadly inclusive of Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils as well as new forms of political agency, activism and organisation in the context of diverse yet continuing postcolonial locations of economic exclusion and precarious citizenship. The agency of south Indian and Dravidian descendants of indentured migrants in Malaysia and beyond was thus significantly reshaped and boosted by Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism in the past three decades, as emergent ‘dangerous classes’ of the Malaysian Indian minority precariat embraced the LTTE’s cyber-nationalism, also via a series of displacements, mental and material, significantly enabled by social media, and new information and communication technologies that facilitated global South-South Asian networking.


Amrith, Sunil, S. 2013. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and Fortunes of Migration. 2013. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bass, Daniel. 2013. Everyday Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: Up-country Tamil Identity Politics. Sri Lanka: Social Scientists Association.

Desai, Kiran. 2006. The Inheritance of Loss. New York: Grove Press.

Kanaganayakam, Chelva. 2009. ‘Configuring Space and Constructing Nations’, in R. Cheran (ed.), Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. New Delhi. Sage Publishers.

Munck, Ronaldo. “The Precariat: A view from the South” Third World Quarterly. Volumen 34. 2013. Issue 5. (pp747-762)

Picketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twentieth Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini. 2003. ‘Diaspora and Citizenship: Forgotten Routes of Identity in Sri Lanka’, in Bhikhu Parekh, G. Singh and S. Vertovec (eds.), Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora. London: Routledge.

Rushdie, Salman. 1992. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991. UK: Granta Books.

Raghuram, Parvati, Ajey Kumar Sahoo, Brij Maharaj and Dave Sangha. 2006. Tracing an Indian Diaspora: Contexts, Memories, Representations. New Delhi: Sage Publishers.

Standing, Guy. 2011. ‘The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.’

The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Tinker, Hugh. 1974. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830–1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] ‘Girmit’ referred to the ‘Agreement’ of the British Government with the Indian labourers as to their length of stay in Fiji and when they would be allowed to go back to India.

[2] The kangani system of group migration, whereby whole families or villages, mainly of Dalit castes, were recruited, was abolished in 1938.

[3] The everyday social suffering and precarious residency status of Indian indentured labour communities within the confines of the ultra-exploitative colonial plantation economy echo in the writings of members of the Girmitiya diaspora and their descendants, as much as in social science and historiograhic accounts of these communities.

[4] See Tinker (1974). Crossing the kala pani, or the black waters of the ocean, was presumed to cancel caste identity.

[5] http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/at-pwtc-indian-malaysians-protest-against-sri-lankas-visiting-rajapaksa-vid#CDjO2Pk2FKbP0gqj.97

[6] Standing (2011) outlined the political risks that the precariat might pose, and what might be done to diminish inequality and allow such workers to find a more stable labour identity. His concept and conclusions have been widely taken up by thinkers from Noam Chomsky to Zygmunt Bauman, by political activists and policymakers.

[7] Piketty (2013)provides a unified theory of the functioning of the capitalist economy by linking theories of economic growth and functional and personal income distributions. He argues, based on the long-run historical data series that the forces of economic divergence (including rising income inequality) tend to dominate in capitalism.

[8] Ronaldo Munck (2013 ) in a realist vein, has critiqued the concept of the ‘precariat’, suggesting that it elides the experience of the South in a ‘Eurocentric manner’ and notes: ‘In terms of political discourse I think we should avoid the language of “dangerous class”, as deployed by Guy Standing, to situate workers politically in the policy world as though frightening the ruling classes was a strategy for transformation.’

[9] Guy Standing (2011) distinguishes the precariat from the salaried, proletariat, and lumpen underclass.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 6

    We all agree with youth about migrant communities of many races into Sri Lanka…No doubt all are migrants into Sri Lanka except native Veddas who lives in forest even now .
    Sinahslee came from of bay of Bengal and Tamils came from South India..
    But good thing about sinahslee is that they are not decided as Tamil on cast lines..sinhalse too have class systems but it not ugly as Tamils have ..
    Brahmins cast is created in india to exploit poor people ..
    India is most racist country in the world ..
    Then one cast
    Then middle cast
    They those who are borne from feets ..
    Who gave this bloody Bramins the right to devise humanity like this ..does any science support this ?
    Do they have different colour of blood .
    So you should talk this racism in today in jaffna.
    Most ugly thing is do divide people.like this

    • 2

      Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake,

      RE: Of Cyber-Nationalism & Tea Parties: New & Old Diasporas Of South–South Asia

      “Why were diasporic Indians in Malaysia protesting before a Buddhist temple patronised by a former prime minister of Sri Lanka? What were the motives for the attempted assault; and why had the three-decades-long armed conflict (1983–2009), waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for a separate state for the Tamil minority in north-east Sri Lanka that ended seven year earlier amidst allegations of war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan State and LTTE, elicit such a broad-based support from south Indian overseas communities throughout the world?”

      Why, why why? Because they are illegal Paras from India.

      They, the Paras, Parsadeshis, foreigners, were fighting on the spoils of the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

      Now, why are the Paras from India should get back to their Para-Homeland, India, Bengal, Bihar, Kalinga, Orissa. Andra-Pradesh, South India, Tamil Nadu, Kerala Nadu etc.

      Reference -Genetics


      Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people:

  • 0

    Sinhalese Pundit: Newspaper comments are all scholars for one day. so, you are.Where is the sinhala -buddhist culture in Bengal or Orissa ?.– On the other hand, Show us that there was a considerable tamil population before this bringing of indentured labour to Orumiththa Nadu…….. As for your concern our suggestion is convert all those dalits to sinhala buddhists and we look after them as own our. Let Tobacco farmers in yapanaya and Tamil politicians fight for a Tamil homeland. Northern Provincial council is just 14 Sq. KM with 273,000 population (some are foreign sinhala Army in Orumiththa nadu. Anyway, that country has about 52 politicians all financced by Eelam in the south. that is what should be stopped. New york has for 55,000 Sq. Miles, 19 million population, the number of politicians are 29 including the two senators who are federal politicians.

    • 2


      Paras, Paradeshis from India, who brought thire Para-beliefs.

      Why, why why? Because they are illegal Paras from India.

      They, the Paras, Parsadeshis, foreigners, were fighting on the spoils of the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

      Now, why are the Paras from India should get back to their Para-Homeland, India, Bengal, Bihar, Kalinga, Orissa. Andra-Pradesh, South India, Tamil Nadu, Kerala Nadu etc.

      Read and comprehend. Get some help in comprehending.

      Reference -Genetics


      Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people:

  • 4

    Dear jim.
    One Sinhala prof..has done a field research in Bangladesh comparing sinahslese language and bangala language comparative studies..
    Go and see how people in Bangladesh speak ..you will find there are so many similarities between two languages ..words; context and meaning of both language..why is it?.
    Late.president Pramadasa visited Bangladesh in 1989…he went to some areas where from some Sinhalese people migrated into Sri Lanka.
    Do you think king Ashoke came to Sri Lanka or not ..
    Do you think Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India or not ?
    You all are migrants..
    But you are claiming not..
    Only your DNA with DNA of people of Bengal will tell the truth.

    But for Tamils there are migrants of South India.
    What evidence.?
    All.cast systems are Indian racism ..created by bloody Bramins to loot and exploit poor Hindu..
    Hinduism survives with Bramins domination and influence.
    In Nallur temple low cast Tamils can not go into insides ..
    Near to it ..
    Only rich can go .
    With big money you can buy your gods too.in Hinduism ..
    Sadly Buddhists too copy this religious discrimination in Sri Lanka now.
    Can any poor Sinhalese go inside Kandy dalalamaligawa or kalani temple..only rich and big names can?
    Is this religion?
    Shame on all those people?.
    Religion become business.
    Load Buddha is free from all these stupid people ..
    These people destroy religious values of His teaching.
    You are real joke ..

  • 1

    Nallur Temple may serve only the tobacco farmers. But, you people also cosider your Shiva or Iswar or Brahman is equal to every one. why the temple priests are discrminating Dalits. that should be changed. On the other hand, Pruthagjana people always try to be superior to each other. Otherwise, all are equal. tjhat is buddhism. Sinhalese pundit. Sinhala and Tamil also have common-like words. Yet, Tamils do not have an established culture in sinhale. What they talk – bharathanatyam, manimekali are all indian culture and literature. But Sinhala buddhist civilization as a package is not found anywhere in the world. We do not have problems with Tamils except their tribalist behaviour and politics. If they want to live with us side by side as brothers and sistors we are OK with that.

  • 0

    It is difficult to understand the objective of the writer on this massive article simply to convey to the readers of her regrets that a separate Dravidian state could not be established in Sri Lanka during the 30 year armed struggle of the LTTE…and how the Dravidians are respected in Countries like Malaysia..Singapore..and rest of the world..

    The great MAHATHMA GANDHI grabbed India from the jaws of the British Empire that had developed a grandiose plan to rule India on their famous ” divide & rule ” policy by partitioning or dividing based on ethnicity… Region…Language . Yet the Brits were successful in hurriedly partitioning India into West & East Pakistan based on Religion before leaving.

    India over the last 70 years has grown as one strong Nation ….they are well aware that any division of Sri Lanka based on Language would become a serious threat to them that would eventually break Andra Pradesh..the South of India.. The West ( US ..UK ) is attempting to achieve it by twisting the arms of Sri Lankan Government..

    As such it is assured that India would not allow a separate Tamil State in Sri Lanka beyond Provincial Council…and it is certain that they would defend any attempts to circumvent that fiercely …

    Indian thinking is not imaginary ….they are far advanced in their thinking than Sri Lankan foolish politicians and people…..

    India confused Sri Lanka and ensured that we get hold of the Tiger by it’s Tail we cannot afford to let lose easily..NOW.

  • 0

    Sent by a Malaysian of Part Tamil Origin

    >Any insights, specially re Tamils of Ceylonese Descent in Malaysia.
    >I have the impression Ceylonese (mainly Jaffna) Tamils who migrated
    >to Malaysia were mainly white collar workers. Like in Ceylon/Sri Lanka
    >they rarely mingled with Indian descent Plantation workers.

    The Ceylonese Tamils are seen as snobs by the local Tamil population because you are right about the white-collar implications. When my Dad spoke Tamil to these blokes here, they were drop-jawed. Indian Tamils and Ceylonese Tamils are very different in my country. Ceylonese Tamils have money and what is called old money. Most Indian Tamils who are doing well as doctors, lawyers and the likes are mainly from plantation families or what we call the estates. It is a derogatory statement if you call them Indian from the estates. So can you imagine my Dad’s era of the 40s, 50s and 60s?

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.