Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Origins of the Indian community

Veeramalla Anjaiah, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Medan, North Sumatra

Selvam, 35, of Indian descent, said he did not know how his family came to Indonesia from India.

"When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell us his father came from a place called Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu. None of my family members have any knowledge of where this 'Dharmapuri' is. We don't have the money to go to India to trace our origins, Selvam, who works as a construction laborer in the North Sumatran capital of Medan, told The Jakarta Post recently.

Selvam's great grandfather was one of the thousands of Indian victims of the British colonial regime in the 19th century.

The British sent hundreds of thousands of illiterate villagers to countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji and Suriname as indentured laborers to work on its tea, sugar and rubber plantations.

Those laborers were the earliest members of the Indian diaspora, which today spans the globe.

Though Indians are not known as a mobile people like the Jews and the Chinese, the Indian diaspora is made up of more than 25 million people across the globe.

The Indian diaspora consists of Indian citizens, as well as expatriates of Indian origin.

Indonesia and India are maritime neighbors and have inherited a rich cultural heritage with so many things in common. The island of Java, the most populous island in Indonesia, was mentioned in the great Indian epic, Ramayana, under the name of Yavadwipa (barley island). It was one of the places where search parties were sent out for Sita (the wife of Rama), and it was by this name that the island was known to Ptolemy, the acclaimed geographer of the second century A.D.

According to various history books, early Indian migration, largely stemmed from religious and trade missions to Indonesia. Thanks to these missions, several Hindu kingdoms emerged on Java and Buddhist (Mahayana) kingdoms on Sumatra, during the early and medieval periods of history respectively.

In modern times, the indentured laborers -- who mainly came from India's Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh provinces, were the first members of the present Indian community here. Later, the British government also brought another group of Indians to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. They were mostly soldiers or employees of British plantation companies.

After World War II, the Indian laborers, soldiers and employees decided to stay on -- many of them in fact staying for generations.

Though a large number of the present generation of ethnic Tamils in Indonesia and other countries in the region are not wealthy, due to their lack of proper education, others -- like Texmaco group owner Marimutu Sinivasan and Malaysia's billionaire Ananda Krishnan -- a telecommunications tycoon who built the 88- story Petronas Twin Towers -- have demonstrated their expertise in business.

Then, another wave of Indian migrants -- small-scale traders, professionals and laborers -- ventured into Southeast Asia during the early part of the 20th century to test their luck.

Gujarati and Bombay traders -- mostly Sindhis, Parsis and Marathis, Sikhs and Tamils belonged to this wave of migrants. They arrived in Indonesia independently -- some with nothing but the clothes on their backs -- to establish textiles, iron and steel, shoes, sports equipment and other businesses in major cities, including Medan, Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, Solo, Padang, Banda Aceh and Semarang.

Lakshmi Mittal, the world's number one steel tycoon who came to Indonesia empty-handed in the 1970s, and the TV entertainment mogul Ram Punjab are some of the success stories from this group of migrants.

Later professionals and the educated elite of India arrived here seeking financial gains, particularly between 1990 and 1997 when the economy was booming.

This Indian expatriate group is made up of managers, accountants, entrepreneurs, teachers, information technology experts, bankers, traders, researchers, inventors, engineers and analysts, who are working in various companies and organizations across Indonesia.

Besides advancing their own careers, members of the Indian community -- both Indonesian citizens and Indian expatriates -- have made significant contributions to their host country in many fields.

Some established schools of repute such as Gandhi International School in Jakarta and Rama International School in Purwakarta, West Java, thus contributing to the development of education in the country.

Curiously, there is no official data on the strength of the Indian community here. Although, in the year 2000, the Indian government announced that there were 55,000 people of Indian origin living in Indonesia.

According to an estimate in the early 1990s, there were about 300,000 people of Indian descent living in North Sumatra alone, where the famous Kampung Keling (India town) is located. Many of them have already left North Sumatra and migrated to Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Some of them moved to Jakarta and other towns.

"There are only a few Indians living now in Kampung Keling," Rajan, who works as a parking attendant in Medan, said.

In Jakarta also, many ethnic Indians have moved to other areas from Pasar Baru, where they were traditionally located. Perhaps the reason may be that both Kampung Keling and Pasar Baru are located in prime areas. Now that the land value has increased manifold, they have been selling their homes at a higher price and moving to areas on the outskirts of the cities.

The fast-growing Indian expatriate community was badly affected by the 1997 financial crisis. Several hundred Indian expatriates lost their jobs and either went back to India or moved to other countries.

However, the successes of the Indian community in Indonesia can be attributed to its traditional ethos, its tolerance and hospitality, its educational aptitude and qualifications, and its capacity to harmonize and adapt.

For example, the Indian community has been living in harmony in the word's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, as well as several other Islamic countries in the Middle East for several decades. It has also been a welcome addition to the U.S. and several European nations.