The Political Economy of Migration: Pakistan, Britain, and the Middle East

Roger Ballard, “The Political Economy of Migration: Pakistan, Britain, and the Middle East” (1987) in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

Migration and Ethnicity

Migrants (and their children) invariably cherish memories of their historical roots for reasons of psychological security; and the experience of exclusion invariably reinforces that tendency. (p. 23)

When it comes to Pakistani migrants to Singapore and their children, two things can be said. Firstly, while there may be evidence that show migrant indeed “cherish memories of their historical roots”, this sense of nostalgia is not passed on to their children. Secondly, it can be argued that their children do not experience the kind of exclusion described above that forces them to look towards their source of origin. While indeed there were children of migrants who were ostracised by their Malay hosts, acculturation for others were less dramatic – especially for those with Malay mothers. Hence, there is no need for these children to look towards their ancestral or historical roots for psychological security. As a result, it becomes less significant in their lives.

Emigrants and Their Societies of Origin

…emigrants are still expected to fulfil their kinship obligations by extending material support to their families… making regular visits back home… buy more land… build themselves an elaborate new house. This partly reflects a concern for honour and status, and the wish to demonstrate how much success they have achieved overseas; but it also reflects a desire to build up security against the day when they finally return home. (p. 24)

The general sense that I get talking to the children of these migrants is that ties between them and their families back home had been severed. For most of them, they returned only once – and even then after three or four decades after migration, and possibly even upon the insistence of their children or grandchildren who want to know more about their roots; they didn’t purchase land – in fact the opposite was true. The land was either abandoned, or sold off or given to their families. Security it seemed was in Singapore, not back in Pakistan. Therefore, you get this idea that they indeed were looking forward – whether they liked it or not.

Patterns of Emigration from Pakistan

Soon after the Punjab was incorporated into the British Raj in 1849, local men began to sign up as soldiers, especially after Punjabis were classified as a particularly ‘loyal’ and ‘martial’ race following the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857…

But men in more localized areas also began to explore other new opportunities. For our purposes, one of the most significant developments came at around the turn of the century, when men from a scatter of villages just inside the Maharaja of Kashmir’s territories began to take work as stokers on merchant ships operating out of Bombay. Just how it was that villagers living so far away from the sea pioneered this niche I have not yet been able to discover, but it was ex-seamen who were the principal pioneers of the contemporary Pakistani settlement in Britain.

As a result at least three quarters of British Pakistanis can trace their origins to an area no more than 20 miles by 30, lying mostly in what is now Azad Kashmir, and particularly focused on Mirpur District. In many Mirpuri villages, expecially those lying close to those from which seasmne were recruited, half or more of the population now lives in Britain.

… In the late 1940s and early 1950s an increasing number of seamen left their ships to take industrial jobs on shore, and soon afterwards began actively to call kinsmen and fellow villagers over to join them; it was thus that a process of chain migration began. (p. 26)

In Singapore’s context, the most significant town of origin was Mansehra. I am able to trace the origins of many Pakistani migrants to the rural areas around Mansehra town, which was located in the (then) Hazara District of the Northwest Frontier Province. There was indeed a process of chain migration where brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews, sons, fathers and other male kinsmen arrived one after another. While the actual origin is still inconclusive, I had theorised that the earliest migrants during the years after the First World War had joined the Police Force. The Police Force allowed for migrants to return home on paid leave every five years or so. And when they did, news on job opportunities would have been shared first-hand. There were at least two cases in which policemen returned back to Singapore with a relative – the first with a cousin, and the second with a nephew.

Marriage Rules and Their Implications

The marriage of cousins (both cross and parallel) is not only permitted, but it is preferred: siblings have the right of first refusal with respect to the marriages of each other’s children… Muslim migrants are members of much more closely-knit kinship networks, within which they usually fins themselves under intense pressure to accept offers of marriage on behalf of their siblings’ children back in Pakistan. And they also know if they refuse, they are likely to be charged with having become so anglicized that they have forgotten their most fundamental duties towards their kin. (p. 29)

I have no conclusive evidence to show that migrants in Singapore who did the same were accused of “having become so Malayised”. But judging from the sentiments of some migrants and returning migrants that I spoke to, there is a tendency to label someone as becoming Malay, and forgetting their roots and responsibilities. Many of the second-generation interviewees that I had mentioned that their fathers had wanted them or a sibling to marry a cousin in Pakistan, but this never materialised.

Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change

Published by Oxford University Press: Karachi

Edited by Virinder S. Kalra (2009)

Introduction by Virinder S. Kalra (p. 1-14)

According to Talbot and Thandi (2004), twelve million people were displaced during the Partition process and this remains the largest migration in modern history. The broad implications of Partition are still being explored, but it is possible to speculate that this initial mass upheaval left a psycho-social sense of dislocation that makes subsequent migration easier. (p. 1)

While this may be true and useful in explaining migration out of Pakistan post-Partition, colonial migration from the Punjab and NWFP pre-dated the Partition. And what about provinces that were not directly affected by Partition migration – the NWFP, Balochistan, Kashmir. How do we account for out-migration from these places?

In crude terms, the argument follows that in a situation of capitalist expansion, people, considered as labour, move from areas of excess to those of demand…

Though Dr Ballard has written a great deal on migration from South Asia, his major contribution to the debate on labour migration from Pakistan has been to highlight the fact that there is a concentration of emigration from certain parts of the Indian sub-continent and these areas cannot necessarily be defined as those with the greatest excess of labour or of the highest levels of poverty. (p. 3)

We will explore Dr Ballard’s article in the next blog post.

Though this is a general piece with an overview of migration by Pakistanis to Australia, one of the central arguments made by Malik relates to the critical role of gender in the formation of identity in the diasporic context. It is the control of women’s bodies and their expectation to perform certain gender roles that are at the heart of the maintenance of Pakistani identity for migrant communities. (p. 6-7)

Yes, I knew I was on the right track when I decided to explore gender within my thesis. Something unique about the Singapore context though is that the spouses of Pakistani migrants were local or localised, so how did that affect the household? These mixed marriages did not always allow these migrant husbands to maintain patriarchal hegemony in their households.

Critical to any understanding of diaspora formation is the way in which identities, often taken for granted and assumed static, become challenged and thrown into flux. Hyphenated forms of identification, as in the case of British-Pakistanis or British-Muslims, often push towards the emphasis of certain aspects of identity and the neglect of others. Fore fronting British in these hyphenated identities may indicate may indicate some primary identification to the former and less to the latter…

One of the key changes in identity politics that has occured in the Pakistani (and broadly South Asian) diasporic context has been a shift from national to religious identifications. (p. 8-9)

What about Singaporean-Pakistanis? From my research, a large number of children were born to Pakistani migrants in Singapore during the 1940s and 1950s. While their fathers may see themselves primarily as Pakistanis in Singapore, their children grew up arguably with new sets of identities. To an extent, some aspect of Pakistani culture and identity would have been inherited, but as children growing up in a developing Singapore, they would be able to see themselves as Singaporean-Pakistanis. And what about the all-encompassing Malay-Muslim identity some related to? Could they then be described as Malay-Pakistani? Could there be more than one hyphen? Truthfully, my interviewees probably see themselves as Singaporean-Malay-Muslim-Pakistani (in any of those order.) And again, going back to what was cited on page 8, do any of these identities take precedence over another? Pigeon-holing individuals and their experiences into a set of two identities, held tenuously by a hyphen seems a tad bit harsh, don’t you think?

And I think there is something to that. There was one person I approached, who seemed rather integrated into the Malay-Muslim community and even arguably among the Arab-Muslim community, but when I spoke to him, he had so much to offer – names of his father’s peers, where they were from, where they worked, the communities they lived in. It was astounding. And this was a common theme I gathered doing my interviews – that there is this much experience and memories suppressed because there is no relevant outlet since there is hardly a Singaporean-Pakistani community in Singapore. And because there is no Singaporean-Pakistani community in Singapore, Singaporeans of Pakistani arguably see themselves part of the larger Singaporean-Muslim or Malay-Muslim community.

A History of Pashtun Migration 1775 – 2006 (Robert Nichols)

Robert Nichols is a Professor of Historical Studies at Stockton University (New Jersey). His research covers the history of South Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the early modern, colonial, and post-colonial periods. These interests include political, economic, social, and cultural interactions across communities as well as interregional connections between areas of the Indian Ocean world. This book was a result of his tireless archival research in places that included India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

One of the main arguments of Nichols is outlined in Chapter 1:

Typically, Pashtun history has been framed and studied by issues of territory, language, culture, and political interaction in specific regions and eras. This volume argues that the history of Pashtun migration has been one of the neglected themes required to fully understand the history of Pashtun communities as well as greater narratives of the Mughal empire, British India, Pakistan, and the postcolonial world. (p.2)

Recall the idea of diaspora that we discussed in the earlier posts, we understand what Nichols is saying is that studying Pashtuns who have migrated out of traditional Pashtun lands (Afghanistan and Peshawar) is equally important as studying traditional Pashtun societies – in understanding Pashtun history.

What you won’t find in this book however is a detailed discussion on the origins of the Pashtun people, names of tribesmen who migrated across the world or insight into Pashtun culture – if you are looking for such information, it may be worthwhile to look elsewhere. Years ago when I picked up this book for the first time, I too have hoped that there would be insight into Pashtun migration to Southeast Asia. However the focus is largely on the movement of Pashtuns (primarily from the Peshawar valley) to:

  1. North India (Rohilkhand region – namely the cities of Bareilly and Rampur) in the 18th century.
  2. The princely state of Hyderabad in South India in the 19th century.
  3. British colonies (primarily Australia) in the 20th century.
  4. Urban centres of Pakistan (namely Karacahi) after 1947.
  5. The Gulf States from the 1970s till 2006.

It provides for an interesting read, but often the weight of the details tend to weigh down the overall pace of reading. Often there are case studies of detailed records and the ensuing discussion may seem repetitive.

How does information from this book tie into my research?

As mentioned, I had hoped that there would be insight into the migration of Pashtuns to Southeast Asia during the colonial period – the time frame which my research is focused on. During the colonial period, Pakistani migrants (migrants from present-day Pakistan) arrived primarily from the the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The NWFP itself was once part of the Afghan Durrani Empire until the 1820s when the Sikh Empire annexed the region in a series of Afghan-Sikh wars. (The Afghan capital was in Kabul while the Sikh capital was Lahore.) Thereafter, in a series of conflicts between the Sikh Empire and the British in the 1840s (dubbed the Anglo-Sikh Wars) in which the British were victorious – this region came under the British as the province of Punjab.It was not until 1901 that the NWFP was carved out of the Punjab and formed its own province. The NWFP consisted of the administrative districts of Peshawar (the capital of the province), Kohat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Hazara. It is understandable then that Pashtuns will naturally be found in the NWFP.

Although not all migrants from the NWFP are Pashtuns (or Pathans as they were referred to by the British), the term Pathan sometimes was used to refer collectively to migrants from the NWFP in the way that the term Punjabi is and was used to refer collectively to migrants from the Punjab. Nichols alludes that migrants from the NWFP who were not ethnically Pathans gained from this loose usage of the term ‘Pathan’.

….Others were recruited for colonial police forces in Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Southeast Asia locations… Police for overseas posts were enlisted from South Asian ‘martial races’, especially the Sikhs, but also Pashtuns, now called ‘Pathans’. But again hard identities broke down over distances. As in the eighteenth century when recruits of various backgrounds often assumed the Rohilla identity associated with military service, so many aspiring police in the Malay states claimed a Pashtun heritage. One observer, discussing the Pashtun company of the police force of the Selangor Malay state, noted that the company was ‘composed chiefly of so-called Pathans, who were really no more Pathan than I am, coming from the southern Peshawar district.’ (p.130)

So this rebranding of identity (not merely just Pathan) is something I will definitely discuss in my thesis.

Throughout the Chapters in the book, what is repeatedly discussed is the adaptability of Pashtun migrants in their new societies. And I think this is really interesting for a few reasons. Pashtuns pride themselves in their adherence to tradition, culture and language (Pashto) yet these studies have shown that throughout history Pashtun communities are highly adaptive and often assimilate into their host societies – that what remains is often a hint of Pashtun genealogy (eg. through stories passed down over the generations). The problem with this is that these migrant Pashtun communities may consider themselves Pashtun, but traditional Pashtun societies will not. As a case in point, I recall an interviewee of Pashtun descent who was chided by her uncle (when she visited her ancestral village years after her parents had passed on) for not being able to speak Pashto.

Anyway, here are some excerpts that I noted down while reading the book. It explains the context of Pashtun (or even NFWP) migration to the British colonies and the subsequent process of assimilation that took place:

After 1775 and throughout the nineteenth century, Pashtuns circulating in northern India, from both urban and rural settings, began moving increasingly in British imperial spheres. (p.2-3)

Taking [marrying local] women hinted at a vision for permanent occupation of territory and settlement. (p.27)

After 1858, developing colonial policies from prisoner transportation to contract labour exportation, increasingly integrated the society of South Asia into imperial political economies operating on a global scale. Pashtun found roles in locations across the Indian Ocean and beyond as plantation workers, transporters, policemen, and soldiers. Much of this migration was permanent as distance and expense limited return options… (p.107)

Finally, two works that seem to be informative for those interested specifically in Pashtun migration during the British imperial period include Gabor Korvin’s ‘Afghan and South-Asian pioneers of Australia (1830-1930) in the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society and Thomas Metcalf’s Imperial Connections, India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920.