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Marriages, Labor, and Odysseys: The South Asian Diaspora Tells Its Own Stories on Instagram

Academia often treats migrants as homogenous. Social media provides a way to present their narratives in an open and empowering manner.

From a Brown History post, submitted by iman_razak.

The late Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote: “Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want… If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume our experience is insignificant.” The digital age has created new ways for marginalized communities to tell stories with which they can empower themselves. Instagram, for example, has become a key platform for presenting migrant experiences in a humanizing and accessible manner. Several accounts dedicated specifically to the worldwide South Asian diaspora subtly challenge how and what we are taught to think about immigration.

Traditional academic studies often treat migrants as homogenous blocks, distinguished by their relationships to their host countries. Contemporary scholars of diaspora tend to argue about methodologies and power structures more than individual narratives. Their articles, though illuminating, are often daunting and inaccessible to the lay reader because of this. Instagram provides a way to present these narratives in an open and empowering manner. Despite the weight of the topics on display — racism, identity, gender, how class and caste affect what stories are told and listened to — they are immediately accessible in ways that academic discourse is not.

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In 1987, the British used a ship as a floating migrant detention centre and for a long period, it held 78 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Some Tamils protested against their detention by hunger striking. They lay around like dead mean staring into space and refused to budge (photo 2 & 3). They hung a banner over the side of the ship that said "British People! Don't let us die." (Photo 1). In October 1987, a hurrican swept the Southeast of England. 15 million trees uprooted and 18 people wire killed. In all the mayhem, everyone forgot about the prison ship and its detainees. Eventually they found the ship adrift. The lower levels of the ship were completely flooded. Luckily all the detainees were safe and accounted for. The government gave everyone temporary admission to the UK on compassionate grounds. ⁣ ⁣ After the storm, the Home Office quietly tried to deport those it had publicly showed releasing. Five Tamil refugee was deported back to Sri Lanka where they was imprisoned and beaten. David Burgess (a human rights lawyer) went to Sri Lanka to collect evidence at her own expense, in order to hold the Home Office accountable. At the time, refugees had no right to appeal against deportation before being sent back to their native country. Eventually she won the case and the five Sri Lankans were allowed sanctuary.⁣ ⁣ Source: New Internationlist, "⁣Between the devil and the deep blue sea" by Felix Bazalgette⁣ ⁣

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Brown History, through archival material and crowdsourcing stories via members of the diaspora, has created an eclectic mix of narratives that range from the personal to the historic to the forgotten. One post discusses an incident in 1987 when British Home Office officials detained Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka on a ship off the English coast. Left ashore for days, they were temporarily granted asylum, but later quietly deported to face state violence. This institutional apathy is unsettlingly reminiscent of the recent Windrush scandal. Other posts convey more quotidian stories, the mundane side of immigration. One presents a young Pakistani couple getting married in Karachi, their nuptials a precursor to a journey from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the rolling green hills of England. Another post details a grandfather’s surprise at being asked to chauffeur The Beatles the first time they visited India in 1968 (Ringo was his favorite). At the same time but across the world, a pair of young brothers and their even younger sister were enjoying their first day in Birmingham.

The eclectic nature of how these stories are collated and displayed adds distinct vitality to them. Gulf South Asia, which often gathers information from the second- or third-generation children of their photo subjects, focuses on South Asians living in the Arabian Gulf. One particularly poignant post features an interview with a tailor from Gujarat now working in Dubai, who is candid about how he doesn’t carry photos of his children because it might tempt him to abandon his job and go back home. The separation is what allows him to send money to his family. Another post about the origins of a beloved sandwich and juice bar in Doha reminds us that immigrants impact their host countries in a myriad of ways not covered by journalists or academics.

“I’ve wanted to share the material I’ve found on Gulf-South Asia connections in an easily accessible and non-academic format,” explains Ayesha Saldanha, the writer and translator behind Gulf South Asia. “I think Instagram is a great platform for sharing these stories, and I’ve found that South Asians who’ve grown up in the Gulf are happy to share their stories to a wider audience because there hasn’t been much attention paid to these narratives before.”

The experiences of immigrant women are among those often ignored. One striking thing about these accounts is how they give women agency. A Gulf South Asia story about a grandmother, for example, recounts her odyssey from Bombay to Qatar to join her husband, the caption’s brevity barely concealing the immense strength required to pull this off. She is an individual, not a statistic. Oru Mayil (“a peacock” in Tamil), an account which focuses on the Tamil diaspora in Western Europe and North America, regularly posts photographs of Tamil models in a manner reminiscent to the “Dark is beautiful” campaigns from the Indian subcontinent, challenging Eurocentric beauty standards and the postcolonial obsession with fair skin. South Asia Art, which delves into the tangled histories and legacies of South Asian communities in the former British Empire, highlights the important roles that diaspora women have played. A recent series of posts on disputes in Fiji between the local population and the descendants of Indian indentured laborers, for example, focuses on how women organized strike committees and encouraged men to fight for their rights.

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The Indian Women’s Committee or the women’s gang was formed during indenture as a collective platform where women openly opposed their violent treatment under indenture. The women’s gang would physically confront and punish European and Indian men who sexually or physically violated them. Women were militant with their attacks but it was a response and an act of survival under a system that sought to dehumanise them. Beatings were commonplace, and other times the girmitiyas women would use force by pinning men down and take turns urinating on them. In one case, the women’s gang made a line and continuously walked over an overseer till he excreted. These types of uprising were deemed by the colonial government and plantation owners as a reflection of how backwards and uncivilised girmitiyas women were. The fact that girmitiyas women actively disobeyed their plantations shows their bravery and strength. These actions taken by the women’s gang was women choosing to use tactics that were apart of their degradation against their offenders. Image courtesy of the Fiji Museum

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In an age in which right-wing politicians across the globe, including in the current White House, have stoked bigotry against immigrants, resources like these can push back. These Instagram accounts provide a meaningful and relatable counter-narrative to such dehumanizing language and actions. They couldn’t be timelier.

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