The Indian Community in Myanmar Paper no. 352 26-Nov-2009 The Indian Community in Myanmar Guest Column by Dr. V. Suryanarayan The Indian Community in Myanmar is one of those forgotten children of Mother India. The tragic status of the community has not been sufficiently brought to light by any institution in India.. The Singhvi Committee Report: According to the Singhvi Committee Report, the total Indian population in Myanmar is estimated to be 2.9 million, of which 2,500,00 are People of Indian Origin (PIO), 2,000 are Indian citizens, and 400,000 are stateless.1 Regarding the Stateless category, it must be mentioned that all of them are born in Myanmar, they belong to the third or fourth generation. But since they do not have any “documents to prove their citizenship under the Burmese citizenship law of 1982” they are deemed to be “stateless.”2 As T. P. Sreenivasan, former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar has pointed out “they had no rights either in the land of their origin or in their land of adoption, and neither the two governments seemed concerned.”3 In fact, of the Indian diaspora, Myanmar has the largest number of “stateless” people. History: Historically, like other parts of Southeast Asia, Burma came under the spell of Indian cultural influences. Thanks to priests, princes, poets, and artists, the Indian culture spread into Burma in a big way; the spread of Buddhism directly from India and indirectly through Ceylon profoundly influenced all aspects of Burmese life. If one leaves aside this glorious chapter in the history of India, the contacts with the outside world, especially during the colonial period, had been accompanied by sorrow, misery, and impoverishment. Imperialist domination made India the pivot of the British Empire and the vast reservoir of manpower were exploited to serve the colonial interests of Britain. Large armies of labourers, soldiers, clerks, and traders migrated to different parts of the Empire to serve the politico-economic interests of Britain. Few money lenders and educated people also went to those countries on their own initiative. Indigenous and Alien Minorities An important clue to the understanding of modern Burmese history is to keep in mind the demographic and ethnic diversity in the country. With more than 100 ethnic groups, languages, and dialects, no other country in Southeast Asia displays such a diversity. It is a veritable kaleidoscope. Historically Burma had been the buffer among the neighbouring countries of China, India, and Thailand. More than 2,000 years of cultural interaction among various races and ethnic groups has resulted in the development of diverse ethnic settlements, residing both in the mountainous frontier zones and lowland plains. Burma has a population of 56 million, the majority Burman number nearly two-thirds. The largest minorities are Shan – 9 per cent and Karen – 7 per cent. Other indigenous minority groups include Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayan, Danu, Akha, Kokang, Lahu, Rohingyia, Tavoyan, and Wa peoples. They constitute nearly 5 per cent of the population. Until the annexation of Burma as an integral part of the Indian Empire in 1886, the country had never existed as a unified State. What is more, the British permitted many indigenous groups living in the frontier areas to have their own administrative set up. It was only after independence that the Government made attempts to integrate the various ethnic groups into one nation. The nation-building experiment was based on the language, culture, and religion of the majority Burmans. This policy was resisted by the minority groups, many of them belonging to the Christian faith. The post-independence history of Burma is full of struggles by the minority groups for autonomy and self-determination. The Chinese and the Indians who migrated to Burma under the protective umbrella of the British rule are considered to be alien minorities, unlike the ethnic groups mentioned before, who are indigenous minorities. It may also be pointed out that the history of Myanmar is riddled with two types of struggles, one fight against the military junta for restoration of democracy and the struggle by the minorities for autonomy and self-determination. The problems of the alien minority groups – Indians and the Chinese – for citizenship and fair treatment have not attracted the attention that they richly deserve. The Chinese have one advantage, compared to the Indians, though their number is less than that of the Indians, they have far greater economic clout and they own a disproportionate share of the Burmese economy. The good relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the military junta have also led to a situation where their problems are attended to with greater sensitivity by the military rulers. According to media reports, the number of Chinese has been increasing in the country with many of them settling down in the Burmese side of the Sino-Burma border. Indians not Homogenous The geographical contiguity, with India sharing both land and maritime boundaries with Burma, facilitated large-scale migration of Indians into Burma. Though the term Indians encompassed all sections of people who migrated from British India – which today consists of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal – the Indians were not a homogenous group. In terms of religion, there were Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, and Christians. In terms of language, there were Bengalis, Hindi-speaking people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Tamil-, Telugu-, and Malayalam-speaking people from the former Madras Presidency and Punjabi-speaking people from Punjab. They belonged to various caste groups and were also economically stratified, the rich Chettiars, the poor Tamils, and Hindi-speaking people, and the English educated middle classes from all parts of the country. What must be remembered is that the Burmese perception of Indians depended upon which strata of society various Indian groups occupied in the Burmese society. The Burmese had contempt for the poor Indians, who monopolised jobs such as scavenging, rickshaw pulling, and other menial jobs, which the Burmans themselves were reluctant to do. They hated the Chettiars, who lent money at exorbitant rates and gradually became absentee landlords in Lower Burma. Social tensions began to build up when the Moslems from Bengal began to marry Burmese women, exploiting the simple traditions of the Burmese. Since Islamic law permitted polygamy, intermarriages became a common practice among the Indian Moslems. What added fuel to the fire was the fact that many of them deserted their wives when they returned to their native villages. The educated Indians, who became doctors, lawyers, teachers, and political leaders, were an object of envy and admiration and there was friendly interaction between the Indian and Burmese intelligentsia. The Burmese nationalist leaders had great admiration for leaders like Gandhiji and Nehru and the educated Indian middle classes represented the best of Indian nationalist traditions. Indian Influx into Burma Condemned and despised in their native villages, whether in Bengal, Bihar, United Provinces, and Madras Presidency, the Indian working classes braved the seas, provided the much needed labour to clear the swamps in Lower Burma and malaria-infested jungles and in that process also became the most exploited and vulnerable section of the Indian population. The laissez-faire policies of the British Raj and the xenophobic and ultra-nationalist policies of the governments in independent Burma have contributed to this unprecedented saga of human misery. As the nationalist movement in Burma began to gather momentum, it also took an anti-Indian dimension. The alienation of vast tracts of agricultural land to Indian Chettiars, the Burmese entry into the labour markets following the depression of the 1930s, which was hitherto an exclusive Indian domain; the opening of the University of Rangoon and consequent turning out of Burmese graduates searching for clerical jobs – all these provided the fertilizer for the growth of anti-Indian sentiments. There were large scale riots against the Indians in the 1930s, due to social, economic, and cultural reasons. The Burmese nationalists wanted freedom not only from the British political domination but they were also equally keen to throw out the yoke of Indian economic stranglehold. Japanese Occupation The period of Japanese Occupation, 1942–45, was the darkest period in the history of the Indian community in Burma. The war entirely destroyed the pre-war economy and the commanding position which the Indian community enjoyed. Some Chettiars saw the writing on the wall and even before the war began they repatriated their vast wealth from the country. The majority of Indians suffered untold misery and hardship. Nearly 500,000 Indians left the country and out of these nearly half of them died on the way. Those who were left in Rangoon joined the Indian National Army in large numbers. At a later period, they also supported the Burmese demand for independence. Introduction Of Citizenship Rules and Land Reforms The independent Government of Burma introduced large number of progressive measures to give the land back to the tiller. These measures naturally hit the interests of Chettiars very badly. The Standard Rent Act, Tenancy Disposal Act, Agricultural Debt Relief Act, Land Nationalisation Act, Agricultural Bank Act, and Burma Foreigners Act – all these had the cumulative effect of depriving the Chettiars of their enormous wealth. No one, with a tinge of social conscience, could protest against these progressive measures. At the same time, the compensation paid to the landlords was meagre; what is more, the Chettiars found it difficult to repatriate their money into India due to stringent foreign exchange restrictions. When the new Constitution was promulgated, it was stipulated that those who had been in continuous residence in Burma for eight out of the past ten years immediately preceding war years were eligible for citizenship. But the immediate prospects of stability in the country were so uncertain that most Indians preferred to sit on the fence and did not apply for citizenship Adding to the political uncertainty was the assassination of Aung San, who was generally considered to be a great friend of India and the Indian community. Only 400,000 applications were received for citizenship and out of these only 10,000 were granted Burmese citizenship. The rest were treated as aliens. When the Government introduced Burmanisation of public services in the 1950s large number of Indians employed in the railways, water transport, customs, post and telegraph, and public works and other departments were retrenched. In the 1960s under the Burmese Socialist Programme, the government even nationalized petty trade. These measures sounded the death knell of the poorer sections of the Indian community in Burma. To add insult to injury, they were not even allowed to bring back their savings to India. Women were not even allowed to take back their Mangalyasutra. The repatriates also complained of demonetization of currency notes, expropriation of properties, confiscation of valuables, and unimaginable humiliations. According to the Policy Note issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu, from June 1963 onwards, 1,44,353 Burmese repatriates have returned to India.4 What is more tragic, even after the lapse of forty-five years, the compensations due to these people have not been settled. Annadurai’s Initiative to Settle Compensation C.N. Annadurai, who became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when the DMK was voted to power in the 1967 elections, was very concerned about the developments in Burma and was keen to resolve the issue of compensation expeditiously. In a conversation with the author, Thomas Abraham, then Minister Counsellor in the Indian Embassy in Rangoon, recalled his meeting with Annadurai in the Chief Minister’s residence in Mambalam. The meeting was arranged through the good offices of common friends. After discussing the pros and cons of the matter, Annadurai wrote a letter to the central government suggesting that India should enter into a long term agreement with Burma for the import of rice and the compensation due to Burmese repatriates could be adjusted in the proposed deal. It may be recalled that during 1967 India was facing an acute crisis in food grains. On his return to Rangoon, Thomas Abraham also made a similar proposal to the Ministry of External Affairs. It is unfortunate, but true, that these concrete proposals did not elicit any favourable response from New Delhi New Delhi’s Hands off Policy Towards The Indian Community in Myanmar The author had discussions with several Indian diplomats based in Rangoon as to why the issue of the status of the “stateless people” of Indian origin in Myanmar never figured in the bilateral discussions between the two countries. Ambassador Parthsarathy, who along with J.N. Dixit, played a big role in re-establishing cordial relations with the military junta, informed the author that after establishing good rapport with the military junta, he wanted to take up the question of stateless people and arrive at an amicable solution. Attempts made by Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan to kindle interest in the subject turned out to be a futile exercise. In his recently published memoirs, Words, Words, Words: Adventures in Indian Diplomacy, T.P. Sreenivasan has described the consequences of New Delhi’s “hands off policy” with regard to the Indian community in Myanmar. Though the Ne Win government expelled the Indian petty traders, the authorities wanted the Indian farmers to stay back to provide continuity in rice cultivation. When Sreenivasan visited them, he found the farmers had become “totally impoverished.” Their quality of life was “extremely poor.” Ironically they did not have even “rice to eat” as the procurement authorities “lifted their produce wholly.” They had to consume low-quality rice, which the State did not want to procure for export.5 Future of Indian Community in Myanmar Two contrasting views about the prospects of the Indian community in Myanmar are given below, one by a Burmese bureaucrat and the other from the Singhvi Committee Report. Thet Lwin, who is a member of the Myanmar Academy of Arts and Science, Ministry of Education, Government of Myanmar, in a recent essay on Indians in Myanmar has presented an optimistic view. To quote Thet Lwin, “Indian presence in Burma is a historical legacy; a section of Myanmar’s Indian community is engaged in business while a majority is in agriculture or in menial labour … The younger generation through education is moving fast towards integration into the mainstream Myanmar society. The rise of India has a profound impact on the image-building attempts of overseas Indians. For Myanmar Buddhists, India is the place for pilgrimage, and for those of Indian stock, it is the country of their forefathers. Culture and religious links could be strengthened by promoting tourism.”6 Unlike the above statement, which is couched in the best diplomatic parlance, but which hides the actual reality, the comments made in the Singhvi Committee Report reflects the reality. To quote the Singhvi Committee Report, the Indians are “fairly impoverished in Myanmar,” the more prosperous elements having left, following waves of nationalization and other measures which hurt their livelihood. The educational scene is pathetic. At one time, the faculty and alumni of the University of Rangoon comprised mainly of Indians. Today, “there are hardly any Indian students in the Universities,” and results in a virtual extinction of a professional class. The main reason was that “between 1964 and 1988, Indians were denied admission to the Universities and professional courses.”7 Conclusion In early January 2010, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas will be celebrated with great pomp and splendour. The ministers of the Central Government, the concerned government officials, and the assembled delegates will harp on the necessity to speed up the administrative procedures relating to Overseas Indian citizenship. In June 2010, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu will be organizing another equally important conference in Coimbatore on Tamil as a classical language. True to Dravidian traditions, Chief Minister Karunanidhi and his loyal lieutenants will sing paeans of praise about the greatness of Tamil Language and how Tamil culture has spread and enriched the traditions of several countries in the world. Will the delegates in these two conferences have the time to discuss about the abject living conditions of the Indian community in Myanmar, many of them Tamil-speaking people of Indian Origin? Unlikely, because New Delhi and Tamil Nadu are more keen to provide legitimacy to the authoritarian government in Myanmar. Naturally they will not like to focus on embarrassing issues, which impinge upon bilateral relations such as the plight of the unfortunate children of Mother India. (Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]) NOTES 1. Singhvi Committee Report, pp. xvii–xx. 2. T.P. Sreenivasan, Words, Words, Words: Adventures in Indian Diplomacy (New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008), p. 198. 3. Ibid. 4. Ibid. 5. Sreenivasan, Words, Words, Words, pp. 195–202. 6. Thet Lwin, “Indians in Myanmar,” K. Kesavapani, A. Mani, and P. Ramasamy, Eds., Rising India and Indian Communities in East Asia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2008), pp. 485–98. 7. Singhvi Committee Report, pp. 259–62.