In 1855, as the British were annexing parts of Burma to add to the Indian Empire, Henry Yule, an English civil servant, wrote of his travels in the South East Asian country. In this fascinating account of Burma, Yule also described the racial superiority the Burmese felt with respect to their dark-skinned, eastern neighbours:
“By a curious self-delusion, the Burmans would seem to claim that in theory at least they are white people. And what is still more curious, the Bengalees appear indirectly to admit the claim; for our servants in speaking of themselves and their countrymen, as distinguished from the Burmans, constantly made use of the term ‘kala admi’ – black man, as the representative of the Burmese Kola, a foreigner.”
This is probably one of the first written references to the Burmese racial slur “kala”. Later, as the Raj annexed all of Burma and made it a part of British India, Indians streamed into the region, where the local Burmese would often refer to them as “kala”.
Today there are very few Indians – defined as tracing their origin to British India – in Burma. But the term “kala” survives. It is used to racially target the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority living on the western coast of Burma who have been described as the most persecuted community in the world. But Rohingyas and Indians in Burma have more in common than a shared racial slur. Like the Rohingya today, Indians in Burma were also the target of racial discrimination and driven out in large numbers in the country between 1930 and the 1960s, a process that continues today with the forced expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar, who are considered foreigners in the country.
Browns in Burma
In 1826, the First Anglo-Burmese War was won by the British, giving the Raj control over much of what is now Northeast India as well as parts of the modern Burma. With it, Indians started to stream into Burma, a process that greatly accelerated with the complete annexation of the country into the British Indian Empire in 1885.
Indians had a significant presence in Burma and dominated commerce in what was then a province of British India. This included big merchants from the Chettiar, Marwari and Gujarati communities. Then, there were the Bengali babus. Like they spread West from Bengal under the aegis of the British Empire, they also spread East (Myanmar borders the Bengal delta). Among the more famous Burmese Bengalis, writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the author of Devdas, worked as a government clerk in the South East Asian country. The third and largest group consisted of labourers – Indians working as coolies, servants and mistries. In George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, for example, memsahibs in Burma rarely knew Burmese, but did need to speak “kitchen Urdu” in order to direct their mostly Indian domestic staff.
By 1931, Indians made up 7% of Burma’s population. They were also extremely prosperous and controlled large parts of the economy. Indians owned so much property that, for example, during the 1930s, they paid 55% of the municipal taxes in Rangoon – the capital of British Burma. The local Burmese, on the other hand, paid only 11%.
This same migration also brought at least a part of the Rohingya population into Burma from Bengal’s eastern-most district, Chittagong. Currently, this fact is fiercely contested politically since it is being used by Myanmar’s administration to paint the Rohingya as Bengali and hence non-Burmese, given that their citizenship laws – absurdly – are based not on birth but on race.
The racial animus that is driving the mass killings of Rohingyas today rose first against Indians in general in 1930, as Telugu and Burman dockworkers clashed in Rangoon, sparking widespread anti-Indian violence. Much larger anti-Indian riots followed in 1938, a year after Burma was separated from British India (but still remained under British rule). Like with the Rohingya violence today, 1938 was simultaneously religious as well as racial – it was sparked off by a book written by a Muslim which was said to be critical of the Buddha, but almost immediately exploded into racial violence directed at all Indians in Burma.
In 1941, there was more violence as the Japanese attacked Burma during World War II. As the Japanese advanced into the country, the British began to withdraw. Without the protection of the British Indian Army, Indians feared attacks from both the Japanese as well as the local Burmese. This resulted in the first major exodus of Indians from Burma. Many Indians, in fact, trekked all the way from Burma to India, with thousands dying in the tropical forests on the way.
In 1948, as Burma gained independence from the British, Indians had to face even more xenophobia as the new state defined itself in racial terms. The population of Burmese Indians had numbered more than 10 lakh before World War II – a number that dropped to around seven lakh in the mid 1950s. Between 1949 and 1961, out of 1,50,000 applications for Burmese citizenship by persons of Indian origin, less than a fifth were accepted.
In 1962, Burma saw a military takeover of its government. The dictator Ne Win followed an aggressive racial policy which affected every minority group. All property was nationalised, severely affecting rich persons of Indian origin. White collar Indians were expelled from the country. Between 1962 and 1964, more than three lakh Indians were forced out of Burma.
In 1982, Burma passed a new citizenship law that created a strict racial definition of citizenship. This rendered the Rohingya and most persons of Indian origin stateless. While the plight of the Rohingya has – deservedly – caught the attention of the world due to the genocide they face, these laws mean even people of Indian origin in Myanmar are discriminated against heavily even though they have lived there for generations. One estimate holds that 5 lakh people of Indian origin living in Myanmar are stateless.
Since then, faced with a Hobsons’ choice, persons of Indian origin have Burmanised – several government policies are aimed at making non-indigenous communities adopt Burmese norms, including language, religion and culture – rapidly in order to reduce the hostility that they faced. The Burmese language has replaced the various languages people of Indian origin spoke and even names have been Burmanised. Yet, this hasn’t entirely solved matters. Hindus and Muslims of Indian origin are not allowed any public celebration of religion and face racism.
In the 1960s, the Indian government was criticised for not helping its diaspora in Burma as they faced bigotry and were being expelled. In sharp contrast, China came to the aid of its Burmese diaspora (who were also targeted racially).
Little has changed today. The Rohingya are the victim of the same structural racism in Burma that persons of Indian origin faced. In the latest surge of violence between the state and Rohingya people who took up arms last year, more than 3,00,000 Rohingyas have fled the Rakhine state in Myanmar where they stay, most of them seeking refuge in Bangladesh.
However, the Indian government, rather than take up the cause of the disposed, is talking of pushing the few Rohingya migrants that have taken shelter in in India back to Myanmar – where they would face genocide.