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Constructing the Indian Immigrant to Colonial Burma, 1885-1948


The Indian Ocean arena has been a zone of circulation and network for people, capital and commodities since centuries. People from the Indian subcontinent had been traveling to Burma as part of this network as court priests, merchants, pilgrims, travelers and soldiers. During the early twentieth century this figure was transformed in the official discourse and popular imagination to immigrant, or a "bird of passage" that was seen as draining the wealth of an incipient Burmese nation. My dissertation questions the process through which the archival and linguistic category of the immigrant emerged at the turn of the twentieth century in the Indian Ocean arena. Specifically, I investigate how did the Indian immigrant come to be associated with such negative connotations.

Some of the indications of this transformation were the increasing number of people who left the Indian ports on the newly introduced steamship to work in the rice industry in Burma. It was also due to the politics of enumeration and classification that the state imposed on the new arrivals at the Rangoon port and in the city. Instead of accepting the inevitability and the all-encompassing quality of these labels that have continued to be part of our present vocabulary, my objective is to use these particular historical developments as a lens to understand how did the word immigrant emerge? At the other end, how did this category itself create further historical change? While acknowledging the important role of the colonial economic framework, one must still ask what were the other social and political developments taking place during this period? Who were the actors in this narrative and how did they comprehend, receive, use, or reject these categories? Did the immigrant see himself/herself as a foreigner or an outsider? Bringing together volumes of colonial government archival material, popular literature, and newspaper articles, advertisements and cartoons, in English, Burmese, Bengali and Tamil, my aim is to unpack the label of the immigrant and hear and uncover the many different voices and stories about people who boarded the ship to Burma.

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