History revisited

Forgotten history: Like the Rohingya, Indians too were once driven out of Myanmar

For most of Burmese history, Indians suffered bigotry for their ethnicity. Yet, India is now abandoning the persecuted Rohingyas.

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.

Anti-Indian sentiment

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.

Institutionalised racism

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.

Forced Burmanisation

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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.