Indira Gandhi and the Indian Politics of the Punjabi Diaspora in Britain

Silas Webb

Silas Webb

This semester I have been lucky enough to spend most of my time at the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research at the Library of Birmingham. My doctoral dissertation has brought me to the “midland metropolis” in order to explore the social and political formations of Indians, largely Punjabis, who migrated to the United Kingdom from the 1930s to the 1970s. I have also enjoyed engaging with the Centre for Modern British Studies as an Associate and participating in lectures and the reading group. Both of these activities have helped to confirm that, as Catherine Hall has said in a different context, “Birmingham was of the empire.”[1]

As a hub of migration in the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham offered a vibrant setting for interacting with anti-colonial struggles and the politics of liberation, both which were informed by an understanding of the relationship between capitalism, racism, and imperialism. The Wolfson Centre maintains the papers of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), an organization committed to political and social issues related to Indian migrants. The papers of this organization, among many other things, demonstrate the level of transnational cooperation that Indian migrants embraced with Pakistani, West Indians, and, later, Bangladeshis. Thus, one might say, Birmingham was also of the Commonwealth.

For Indians in Britain during the 1960s, at least the thousands represented at that time by the IWA, the Commonwealth was not the ideal international organization. In 1969, just before the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, the IWA released a statement imploring its members to protest because the Commonwealth was “nothing more than an exploitation market for Anglo-American imperialism.”[2] The anger that the IWA harboured toward the Commonwealth in general was rooted in the experiences of Indian democracy in the nearly twenty years of independence, and especially after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964.

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Lal Bahadur Shastri became the leader of the Congress Government after Nehru’s death. Though his was a short tenure, as he died in office in 1966, he presided over crises of food shortage and the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. More to the point, he retained the Defence of India Act, an emergency measure during the war, and the IWA saw the maintenance of this act as an unnecessary threat to democracy. Indeed, according to the IWA, the DIA served as de facto suspension of habeas corpus that facilitated the detention of more than 1000 communists, trade unionists, workers and peasants who were, for one reason or another, considered threats to Indian democracy.

These problems, rather than finding any resolution, were exacerbated under the First Ministry of Indira Gandhi. The perspective of the Indian diaspora on Gandhi’s governments is especially important in 2014. Last month was the thirty-year anniversary of the Army invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and this month many are commemorating the anti-Sikh pogroms that occurred in North India in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As these events are rightly commemorated, there may be a tendency to see her tenure, and even more so her relationship with Sikhs and the Punjab, through this lens only.

The papers of the IWA provide a longer perspective on that relationship. In a “Resolution on India,” passed at the National Conference of the IWA in 1967, the IWA decried the brutal suppression of the Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal and plans for a program of coerced sterilization of peasants, which ultimately affected roughly 12 million people during the Emergency Rule of 1975-77.[3] Moreover, the IWA characterized the government’s response to the Indian Railway Strike of 1974 as an expression of the “true fascist nature of the [so-called] Indian democracy.”[4] Thus, once Gandhi initiated Emergency Rule in 1975, Indians in Britain had already been prepared to see her ministry as dictatorial and protests against her Government became ever fiercer; well before her sanctioned aggression against Sikh holy sites.

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Though some have criticized the IWA for being too Indo-centric in its politics, which led second and third generation British Punjabis to seek alternative forms of mobilization, it remains that a thorough appraisal of these politics is integral to understanding the process of community formation. Moreover, this archive allows us to examine British politics and society in the 1960s and ‘70s, as they were perceived and experienced by labour migrants, and the radicalism that late-stage capitalism engendered, which fostered inter-group solidarities of migrants, students, and workers. Both helped form a foundation for activism among British Indians in the mid-twentieth century. The Papers of the IWA provide an important archive for pursuing both of these concerns.

[1] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 272.

[2] MS 2141/A/3/2. Urgent Circular from Jagmohan Joshi, General Secretary, Indian Workers Association. Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service (BAHS).

[3] V. A. Pai Panandiker and P. K. Umashankar, “Fertility Control and Politics in India”, Population and Development Review, 20 (1994): 91.

[4] MS2141/A/1/1/29. Draft Resolution on India. 1967. BAHS.

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