“Diaspora” is the term for a group of persons with a common group identity, unique in culture and language, dispersed or scattered in various parts of the world. A diaspora maintains and nurtures its own civilizational and cultural identity and its aspirations are linked with their country of origin, as well as with the diaspora worldwide, making it a global unity with global identity. The Jewish, Chinese and Indian diasporas are some of the vibrant diasporas with a presence all over the world. The Tamil diaspora is a demographic group of Tamil people, of Indian and Sri Lankan origin, who have settled in various parts of the world. Among the Indian diasporas, the Tamil diaspora is a very strong and vibrant community whose presence has been in Asia and Europe from age-old days, when the Tamil people developed commercial ties with various countries all over the world. Tamils are a sea-faring race and their trade with the western and eastern worlds has been documented from the pre-Christian era. This early commercial trade, followed by the travel of Buddhist monks and Saivite and Vaishnavite saints to East and Southeast Asia, then the conquering of the later Chola kings of Southeast Asia all resulted in early Tamil settlements in various countries.
Migrations of the above type changed into contract and indentured labour migrations during the early colonial days, especially after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. In due course, this changed into the migration of professionals and other working groups in search of job opportunities, as well as refugees and asylum seekers owing to political and social pressures–the latter especially from Sri Lanka. This phenomenon, which continued over centuries on a small scale, has of late resulted in mass migration with a common identity on a global level. Today, the Tamil Diaspora can be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Middle East, Réunion, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Guyana, Myanmar, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, the French West Indies, Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States of America.
It is proposed to organise an “International Conference on Tamil Diaspora” in Mauritius, with a view to pool together members of the Tamil diasporic countries and the scholars evincing keen interest in the study of the Tamil diaspora, to promote academic research on this most fascinating theme at the international level. This conclave would bring together people from the Tamil Diaspora living in various parts of the world and foster interaction and solidarity among widespread groups.
Tamil Diaspora Identity
As described in the foregoing passage, the dispersal of Tamils over the globe is not of recent origin. There are currently estimated to be at least one-hundred million Tamil people spread across distant seas, living in more than 70 different countries and islands. Among these are many thousands living in various parts of the world as refugees and asylum seekers.
The Tamil diaspora is a vibrant group of people who, though separated by great distances, live with a spirit of oneness and togetherness. They are deeply rooted in a common unique ancient heritage, possessing a magnificent culture and eminent language, including a body of literature classical in character and universal in nature. This heritage, this togetherness are not only matters connected with the culture of the past. The rich Tamil culture and spirit of oneness is a solidarity endowed with dynamism and growth, consolidated struggle, and continuous suffering. This solidarity is given purpose and direction by the aspiration of a people for the future–a future in which they and their children may live in equality and freedom in an emerging one-world society.
The Tamil Diaspora’s passion and love for their language and culture is fast-growing to be recognized as an international force. Language and culture are two facets of the same identity. Language is a major cultural element; culture is everything which is socially learned and shared by all the members of a society. Culture is an organised system of behaviour and said to be normative, as it defines standard of conduct.
Isolated diaspora communities often preserve their cultural heritage more than their fellowmen still dwelling in the homeland. Each Tamil diaspora community has had to wage its own struggle over generations, to achieve economic prosperity while yet preserving cultural identity and ancestral traditions. Each has its own stories of how they have overcome obstacles peculiar to their adopted homeland. Despite their relative isolation from their native land, they have preserved and nurtured their multifaceted religious traditions and other cultural elements for posterity.
The digital revolution has strengthened the bonds of the Tamil diaspora, forging new cultural, economic, and political togetherness, and deep-rooted kinship ties. As Piet Baker mentioned in his work entitled Remembering Roots (1995) the “Internet made it possible for members of diasporic groups to communicate regardless of time and distance. Their homeland, their national identity, and the ethnic, social, cultural and political meanings of this identity are the most covered topics in these online meeting places”.
The dual attachment towards both the country of origin and the country of resettlement is not as paradoxical as it may seem. It is a fact that some people with home in two countries are showing an amazing capacity to maintain dual identities – with strong cultural ties and contributions to both places. The dispersed Tamil people’s sense of belonging and togetherness has resulted in the flowering of multi-faced cultural, religious and media growth to such an extent as to excel these activities even in the lands of their origin.
Tamil Diaspora Locations
The early settlement patterns of the Tamils can be traced to the sugar cane plantations of Mauritius and Réunion in the Indian Ocean; Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean; Guyana and Suriname in South America; plantations in South Africa; rubber estates and railways in the Federated Malay States (Malaysia); coffee and tea estates in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); and to coal mines of New Caledonia of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.
The following statistics about the demographic spread of the Tamil diaspora is not exact. Some figures are long outdated, but are still included here for illustration of the extent of the Tamil people’s world presence:
Britain (with 350,000 or more Tamil people), the USA (with well over 140,000), Canada (with over 300,000) and Australia (with over 30,000) are only some of the developed countries where the Tamil diaspora is well settled, having migrated voluntarily from their homelands Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. (It is estimated that there are more than 300,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka which comprises voluntary migrants, as well as asylum seekers.)
It is estimated that as base habitation India has almost 72,138,000 and Sri Lanka 5,000,000 Tamils. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, south of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean have over 40,000 Tamils, there the second largest ethnic group. In these islands there are over 6,000 Tamil children attending 33 Tamil schools.
In the early colonial era, Indonesia had 50,000 Tamils. Tamils were taken there by the Dutch colonial masters in the 1830s to build up Dutch plantations. The Tamil people were used for hard labour and, as the conditions were not favorable, many returned to their homeland in the 1940s. A concentration of somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 Tamils remained in the region of Northern Sumatra. Most of these were Hindus, but there were Christians and Muslims, as well.
Singapore has about 200,000 Tamils, who constitute the third main cultural group in that country.
Malaysia has a Tamil population 1,800,000 strong.
Myanmar (Burma) had a Tamil population of 200,000 at one time, but since the end of the Second World War the number has been reduced.
Vietnam has a small minority of about 3,000 Tamils, mostly in Ho Chi Minh City.
Cambodia has 1,000 Tamils, China 5,000 and Thailand 10,000.
Mauritius has a Tamil population of 115,000, the larger bulk from the southern state of Tamil Nadu who arrived there from 1727 to work in the sugar cane plantations.
Réunion is an island in the Indian Ocean being run as a French Department. Tamil inhabitants came there as far back as 1848 as indentured labourers, mainly from Pondicherry and Karaikal, the French territories in Southern India. On Réunion there are currently about 120,000 Tamils. There are, along with this community, a large number of Hindu temples run by voluntary organizations at which Hindu and Tamil cultural links are well-preserved.
Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, has a Tamil history of about 230 years. A shipload of migrants landed here in 1770, composed of diverse ethnicity. There are now about 4000 Tamils working in trading, as well as in professions.
In South Africa Tamil migration started from 1860, first for indentured labour (for which the first batch 340 Tamils were brought). Now there are more than 250,000 Tamils spread over many cities, the concentration being in Natal and Durban.
Denmark has around 7,000 Tamils, Fiji has around 110,000, France around 100,000, Germany around 50,000, Switzerland approximately 40,000, Italy around 25,000, Netherlands around 20,000, and Norway around 10,000.
Again, the above statements about the demographic spread of the Tamil Diaspora is tentative. There may be large variations and it needs to be updated. Thus the statistic details about the Tamils in other Diaspora countries should be collected through field study and updated.
Theme of the First International Conference on Tamil Diaspora
Since this is the first conference which forms the basis for a number of subsequent programmes of international character, its theme can be a systematic and objective survey of the Tamil diaspora all over the world, with objective and authentic data, statistical details and connected discussions on various aspects of the cultural heritage. The conference should pool together all available resources for making further studies on various aspects of the Tamil diaspora communities–separately as well as holistically.
Each research paper pertaining to each country may present a historical background about the place in Tamil Nadu from where the Tamils migrated in various periods, and the socio-economic and cultural backdrop of the migration. The type of migration, the journey to the new land, etc. should be presented in a brief manner.
Profiles of the land and people of the country migrated to should be presented briefly, and the places in which Tamils have settled should be enumerated. Economic conditions, educational rate, social status, involvement in social, political, corporate activities, etc. should be briefly explained.
The second part of the paper should present descriptive data covering all aspects of the socio-economic and cultural factors of the life-style of the Tamil diaspora in the country to which they have migrated.
Points to be highlighted
1. Land and the people of the diaspora country.
2. The background of migration.
3. History of the migration.
4. Dispersion of the Tamil diaspora.
5. Demographic spread of the Tamils.
6. Different categories of the Tamil diaspora.
7. Socio-economic position of the diaspora.
8. Linguistic issues.
9. Affinity with the motherland.
10. Impact of the country of migration on the Tamil diaspora.
11. Contributions of the diaspora to the country of their migration.
12. Efforts to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of the mother country.
13. Issues related to ethnic identity in the Diaspora country.
14. A review of the current position of the diaspora in the country of migration.
15. The lifestyle of the diaspora in the country of migration.
16. What is lost and what is gained.
17. The lifestyle of the Tamil diaspora in comparison with the lifestyle of their counterparts in the nearby Diaspora countries.
18. The vision of the Tamil diaspora about their future.
19. Requirements to be met.
20. Solutions at which to arrive.
The study should be both descriptive and historical, based on data drawn from different groups and collected through objective field survey of different periods. The general presentation shall be on historical sequence. Wherever necessary, comparative methodology can also be attempted. The study should be holistic, taking into account all the vital issues of the Tamil Diaspora.
Dr. G. John Samuel,
Institute of Asian Studies
Chemmancherry, Sholinganallur Post
Chennai – 600 119
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Phone : (91) 44 – 24501851,
For any details about the academic part of the Conference you may please contact Dr. G. John Samuel, co-ordinator of the Conference. Mr. Gooroonaden Vydelingum, General Secretary is in-charge of all other arrangements in Mauritius. Many sub-committees have been formed to look into all aspects of this international conclave.
General Secretary of the Conference:
Mr. Gooroonaden Vydelingum,
Mobile (230) 7710025
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