Human Writes: When will Indian lives matter?

  • Living
  • Sunday, 14 Jun 2020

'Tamils in Malaya', pictured in the book 'Camping And Tramping In Malaya: Fifteen Years' Pioneering In The Native States Of The Malay Peninsula' by Ambrose B.Rathborne, published in 1898. — Public domain

It has been 400 years since the first ship carrying 20 enslaved Africans arrived on American soil, in Virginia – stolen lives in a stolen land. Slavery ended long ago but its legacy lingers on, in the callous disregard for black lives.

The killing of George Floyd, caught on video, has led to protests across the United States and catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement around the globe, with many “taking a knee” in solidarity.

Modern racism based on skin colour has its roots in the slave trade. (Note that Roman slavery in ancient times was not race-based.) To justify enslaving fellow humans, a narrative was perpetuated: dark skin was inferior. Slaves were “stupid” and “lazy”, as were natives who “needed” to be colonised. One common belief was that black people did not feel pain as whites did. This justified physical mistreatment and horrific experiments performed on blacks. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynaecology”, repeatedly cut the genitals of enslaved women without anaesthesia in experimental surgeries.

Ideas like white superiority still persist. Systemic racism traps people of colour, making social mobility difficult.

There are some parallels in Malaysia.

Among Malaysians, more Indians die in police custody – they account for almost one in four deaths in custody, despite making up only 7% of the population.

Some cases have come to light. N. Dharmendran died in custody aged 31 from “breathing difficulties” in 2013. But a postmortem found multiple trauma injuries and stapler bullets in his ears. A. Kugan was only 22 when he died in a cell in 2009. His family broke into the morgue and fought for a second autopsy, which found injuries from repeated trauma.

Indians are falling behind in all areas. Among major races, they have the lowest life expectancy, highest suicide rate and lowest relative home ownership, a 2017 study from the Centre for Public Policy Studies found. They also own just 1.5% of shares in limited companies and have a relatively high involvement in crime and gangs. Inequality breeds crime – studies show if there’s little chance of legitimate success, unlawful activities are more likely.

How did Indians end up in this state? The answers lie not in race but history.

It has been close to 200 years since the first ships carrying indentured workers from India docked in ports of her Majesty’s colonies. After slavery ended in the British empire in 1833, giving black slaves manumission, plantation owners looked to India for replacements.

The Indian indentured workers were desperate, impoverished peasants, burdened with debts from British taxes. They arrived to horrific conditions in plantations in the Caribbean, Fiji or Mauritius. They were treated like slaves. In British Guiana, Indians stayed in the “nigger yard”.

In Malaya, most Indians came as indentured workers bound for rubber estates. Some also worked on railway and road construction. Malaria killed many of those clearing jungle. Many died from “the most cruel conditions of treatment, malnutrition and misery”, writes George Netto in his 1961 book Indians In Malaya: Historical Facts And Figures. This history has barely been acknowledged.

They often worked nine to 10 hours a day, six days a week, writes KS Sandhu in his 1969 book Indians In Malaya: Some Aspects Of Their Immigration And Settlement (1786-1957). Employers sometimes withheld pay for unsatisfactory work or inflated workers’ debts, making it very difficult to end the indenture. They were thus living “almost in slavery”, or not far from it, Sandhu writes.

Often, only “flight or death” could end the misery. Death rates in some estates were as high as 80% to 90%, says Sandhu. Suicide was common, as it was for plantation slaves. Not till 1929 did births of Indians exceed deaths.

Later, toddy shops were opened by the management as a form of control and debt. Alcoholism became a problem, alongside poverty, sickness, shoddy housing and violence from supervisors.

Conditions never improved. In 1910, indentured labour to Malaya was banned. But the “kangani” (or personal) recruiting system that replaced it was little better. Finally, in 1938, the Indian government placed a complete ban on assisted immigration to Malaya.

Communities long suffering decay and abuse do not easily move upwards, unlike immigrants. Governments may leave them to languish.

When I lived in Washington DC while on a fellowship in the 1990s, I interviewed a black woman from a ghetto. She had only met a white person once, when she gave birth. That’s how great the city’s black-white divide was.

Plantation Indians here were always isolated. When plantations closed, 300,000 Indians were evicted, losing their jobs, housing, crèches, and, significantly, community support as well as plots of land for farming. Brutally, there was no programme to resettle them. The result was an underclass that fell even further behind – now, 40% of Indians are at the bottom of the income ladder.

Poverty eradication programmes have overlooked Indians. Aid has often been siphoned away. After so many years of neglect, when will they get the help they need? When will people start to care? When will Indian lives matter?

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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immigrant labour , racism , Indians , Malaya ,


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