Sunaina Basu, Nusmila Lohani, Shehryar Nabi, Colonial Globalism in the Bay of Bengal: A Class Based Perspective

2014-04-25


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Interview Participants
Exploitation, Internet, cheap labor, language, cultures clashing, language and culture. Global warming. The variety of responses given by students in Dhaka and Medford demonstrate how world systems create multifaceted connections between regions. The entity examined in this video essay is the Bay of Bengal during the late imperial era: the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Specifically, it will observe how a new class hierarchy emerged in South and Southeast Asia, and how representations of globalism differentiated according to class. Two class groups in particular will be discussed: Non-European colonial government officials, and Indian migrant labor.
Globalism as we know it today was derived from the colonial area, when European powers gained control over trade routes within the Bay of Bengal and administered colonies that defined new territorial divisions within south and southeast Asia.
In this context class hierarchies were re-created according to a particular classes level of contribution to the colonial project.
For the middle to elite classes the best avenue to social status was civil service. When colonial rule became more direct in the late 19th century territorial administration made a significant break from the past by institutionalizing what is known as a rationalized bureaucracy. In the past, European governance occurred through dealings with local headman. The rationalized bureaucracy imposed a linear system of governance that operated under a hierarchy of administrators that progressively gained power from locality to province to state.
For educated people indigenous to the colonies advancement within this administrative hierarchy was the key route to achieving a high social rank.
To prepare for civil-service a western education was required. Along with western education came western cultural norms, which began to represent status for those who held government appointments. In the colonial world being higher class and Western became synonymous.
Western class-consciousness among the elite is reflected in Rabrindranath Tagore’s book “Home and the World”, published in 1919. Bimala, a Bengali woman who married a westernized man with a post-graduate level of education, showed her devotion to him by being educated and “introduced to the modern age in its own language.” The language of the modern was the language of the western”, and it was spoken most fluently by the elite.  
Westernization made a very deep impression on the intellectual life of the elites and informed a new sense of moral duty.
Government officials in particular were heavily influenced by European Liberal universalism- the intersection of Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism with Imperialist expansionism. This served as a major ideological push for reform within the colonies that targeted elements of the population perceived as uncivilized or unfairly treated.
The labor class was among the social groups that became a target of government programs aimed at reform. In fact, the question of labor helped build government departments that contributed to the development of modern, bureaucratized nation states.
In British Malaya, for example, the call for further investigation and management of labor affairs led to the creation of the the Malayan Labor Department in 1911. This department served to both protect labor from estate managers and ensure the smooth inflow of the labor supply from Southern India.  
This brings us to the next class created by colonial forces: migrant labor.
The Asian working class was formed out of the regional separation of labor and capital in the industrialized world economy. Capital was supplied by Europeans, while labor was supplied Asians and Africans in colonized territories.
A major consequence of this conception of divided inputs for industrial production was the spread of migratory networks of labor across the Bay of Bengal. This migration was determined by both “push” and “pull” factors incentivizing voyages across the Bay to different parts of empire. Migrants were often “pushed” by famine, ecological disasters and economic depressions set off by fluctuations in global commodity markets. The main “pull” factor was the prospect of higher wages - leading to a higher standard of living.
Around the late 19th century, chunks of migrants swarmed in Ceylon and added to the labor of coffee plantation, this particular case of migration was caused essentially by a famine in their habitat, which pushed them to migrate to Ceylon as a means of looking for new lives.
The main institution of labor recruitment in the eighteenth century was the indenture system, in which a laborer’s travel and living expenses would be paid for in exchange for his work. While this was often perceived as a temporary situation that would allow the laborer to save enough money to return home, laborers often accrued debt that left them permanently attached to the estates upon which they worked.
Although the indenture system was abolished in 1920, the same issue of debt and contractual conditions that bind laborers to their host country persists to this day.
I think the modern day term that’s used is traffic, trafficking, which is not exactly indentured labor but its in the same class of movement. Types of forced movements. And, you know the, unfortunately particular with the laboring classes who are leaving South Asia to go abroad to work, There’s a lot of abuse in terms of debt, exorbitant fees, that are kind of extracted by people. You know giving people false documents. Placing them in employment situations which are difficult or abusive.
So one of the things that’s been particularly a kind of a structural problem for South Asian labor in the Arab Gulf states is something called the Kafala system, which is basically, you know people come to work in the golf states and they come on the basis of their employment by a particular employer. And if they leave that job they become illegal. So that ties the labor to the employer, who can often, who then is its kind of a situation that has a lot of potential for exploitation. Because the worker is completely dependent on the employer. Who can throw the Labor out on the street and the laborer immediately becomes illegal. So regardless of the abuse or abusive conditions, there’s very little that the labor can do to protest the conditions.
Racial categorization also played an important role in the ethnic separation of class. In the case of colonial Malaya, the British very deliberately defined which races belonged to which classes. Tamils were believed to have the body type suited for working on plantations, and thus were preferred over indigenous Malays as a source for labor. Malays were thought to be a docile, subservient race not fit for hard labor. These characterizations of race yielded a Malayan working class that was made up largely of Southern Indians.
The culture that emerged among labor communities reflected a globalism distinct from that of the westernized elites. Relevant to this discussion is Sunil Amrith’s idea of “mobility embracing captivity”. Unable to move back home, migrants brought home with them.  
Because migrant’s labor often traveled in networks bounded by a common region of origin, traditional customs were preserved in the estate settlements they moved to. For example, agricultural labor in Malaya derived predominantly from the villages of Tanjore and Tinnevelly. Hindu temples in the labor colonies resembled that of the villages in India where the migrants came from.
Although customs and architecture were preserved, caste roles had to be flexible out of necessity. It is certain that the caste system was observed by the fact that those from “untouchable” castes were given separate quarters from other laborers. However, religious ceremonies that normally would have been led by a Brahmin priest had to be led by a lower caste in the absence of Brahmins on an estate. Intermarriage between different castes also became more frequent.  
The working class also began to show increasing westernization through their consumption patterns.
In Malaya, workers often employed bicycles as a means of transport and attended the cinema to watch popular stories from India recreated on the screen. Objects of modernity were even found in Hindu temples, such as a mickey mouse figurine.  
With the expansion of government oversight of labor, anti-colonial nationalism and the press, the working class became more politically conscious. They gained an awareness of government structures and knew where to appeal to directly. In the 1920s in Malaya, Indian laborers were making thousands of requests to Indian government agents.   
The interactions between labor and officials show that colonialism created new class relationships in the Bay of Bengal that would have important political implications. In addition, the new expressions of culture that differentiated according to class, and the changing social roles of people within their class defined an Asian modernity. This modernity arose as a consequence of new connections across the Bay of Bengal that were defined by the colonial redrawing of territorial boundaries and commodity markets.  
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