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A Revolution of Mobility in Asia

Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia by Sunil S Amrith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp xvii+217, Rs 4,786.

political and climatic interruptions or

A Revolution of Mobility in Asia

accelerations” (p 31).

Chronologies of Migration

Arup Maharatna While the numbers, patterns, and direc

he book under review is about h uman migration, about living away from one’s home. Any rigorous new study of human migration is i mportant not only because migration has inextricably been linked with the history of mankind, but also because relatively little is known about such an important dimension of human civilisation. All this makes for a major reason why the author Sunil Amrith deserves thankfulness and applause from the global social science profession. The book’s slenderness is impressive, parti cularly in the field of migration where books tend to be relatively bulky in size. The relative slimness of the book appears to indicate greater succinctness and precision than usual, a promise largely upheld by the content and texture.

The canvas of the book is indeed quite big. It begins in the first two chapters, with historical sketches of Asia’s migration flows and the making of Asian diasporas during 1850-1930. A relatively short span of two decades between 1930 and 1950, marked by war, revolution and distress or crisis migration, is analysed in the following chapter, while migration patterns after the second world war, along with postcolonial development initiatives and the forces of globalisation, are covered in the fourth and fifth chapters. A dense introductory chapter sets out the major issues that serve as the basic framework for inquiry into Asia’s migration patterns and the characteristics of diasporas over the span of about one and a half century. A short concluding chapter at the end captures the salient points and propositions that emerge.

The chief motivation driving this study appears to be a concern for understanding the nature, reason, and impact of migrations in Asian countries in comparison with long-standing European and Atlantic

book review

Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia by Sunil S Amrith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp xvii+217, Rs 4,786.

population movements and diasporas. This comparative (and historical) perspective has been a major source of strength, in the relatively thin and scattered stock of scholarship on the phenomenon of Asian migration.

The introductory chapter captures in judicious order the key issues and debates pertaining to Asia’s migration h istory: the nature of migration and migrants, major driving forces behind Asia’s mobility revolution, the role of transport, communications, and ideas, the periodisation of various phases of Asia’s migration, and finally the relative importance of unfreedom and agency in Asia’s migration. Chapter 1 is dense, and large, but lucid account of what the author has called “great migrations” in Asia between 1850 and 1930. Originating in new breakthroughs in railways and steamship, a series of changes in the production structure followed that induced large movements of population across Asia. For example, over the second half of the 19th century, large swathes of additional lands had been planted with rice in the regions of south-east Asia; these propelled huge labourer movements from parts of India and China. Millions of Asian migrants moved to new frontiers of production and mining and to port cities that swelled with the expansion in trade during this period. There were of course many smaller streams of overseas and overland migration from India and China. Numerous documents in this chapter drive home the point that “the chronology of Asian migration, then, is the chronology of economic development and capitalist transformation...punctuated in specific cases by

may 26, 2012

tions of population movements by themselves constitute a key element in any standard study of human migration, their impact on the conditions, quality, and organisation of human living and space is no less important. So also are the diverse sociocultural-ideational ramifications of migration and its consciousness on those who have never moved. Chapter 2 of the book is devoted to those aspects of Asia’s great migrations during 1850-1930, the people who dispersed from their homelands generally labelled d iaspora. On the basis of considerable secondary evidence and information, it is argued that the acceleration of population movements from the late 19th century led to the transmission and exchange of novel ideas, different cultural practices, and new institutions. In fact m obility of different kinds – travel, pilgrimage and migration – brought a sense of openness and cultural innovation and greater closeness within and between east, south-east, and south Asia. While the early stages of mass m igration were marked by fl ux arising from the infusion of novel ideas, new institutions, and fresh arrivals from the lands of origin, diasporas in the later p eriod – when mass migration in fact b egan to decline – assumed a more stable character.

The early and middle decades of the 20th century marked a watershed in the patterns of Asian migration. This was a period of global economic depression, growing disconnection, and shattering of many inter-Asian migration links, followed by global warfare and refugee movements. Indeed by the 1930s and for the first time since the 1870s, the fi gures for Chinese and Indian return migrants exceeded the numbers of new entrants to the ports and plantations of southeast Asia. A new wave of global warfare i ntervened and led to mass migration of a different kind in Asia as elsewhere – refugees. Tales and estimates of forced

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movements of the Chinese population in the wake of internal warfare between the nationalists and communists, followed and mediated by the Japanese wars of invasions since the 1930s, and then by global war and famines are lucidly narrated and chronicled in Chapter 3. For instance, the disastrous famine in Honan in 1942 produced over nine million refugees and a huge number of deaths. The estimates of overall number of refugees in China both during and in the wake of the war vary from 30 to 100 million.

One of the largest movements of population occurred in the Asian regions least affected by the global war, namely, the Indian subcontinent, in the wake of the Partition. It produced about 20 million refugees, 12 million of whom moved only across the boundaries of the divided Punjab. Amrith aptly sums up the scale of Asia’s mass migrations just for the years immediately after the second world war: “China’s war refugees; the exodus of Indians from Burma; the refugee movements of India’s Partition – t aken together, they do quite probably represent movement on a scale unprecedented in human history” (p 116). All this is presented in a condensed and concise form, with numerous indications of potential, possibility, or need for further in-depth research and inquiry into specific issues and contexts.

There were many far-reaching ramifi cations of these mass movements of Asian populations in the post-war years. These have been dealt with in Chapter 4, with special reference to the impact on development and urbanisation in Asian countries. The mass migrations and new settlements across post-war Asia brought to the fore many complex issues relating to the question of citizenship and what some have called the “orphans of empire” (p 119). In the context of the multiethnic, multi -religious, and multilingual new nations of Asia, the new international borders “both united and divided people” (p 118). For example, the civil war that broke out after a brutal invasion by West Pakistani military forces in East Pakistan in 1971 culminated in over nine million refugees pouring into India – a crisis migration of a scale almost rivalling the one witnessed during the Partition of 1947.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, new and post-1945 borders in Asia have immobilised peoples who had been of a sojourning and mobile type. The Jewish and Armenian diasporas of Asia, which used to stretch from Baghdad to Singapore via Bombay, Rangoon and Calcutta, began another kind of migration, namely, the lifetime move in search of security to Australia, New Zealand, C anada, United States (US) or Israel.

In the 1950s, new large-scale development initiatives and programmes in China and India – with the then-dominant view of development as state-directed industrialisation and modernisation – led not only to excitement and patriotic commitment to building new states, but also movements of vast numbers of people to new sites of progress: factories, construction sites, and dams. In fact, sooner or later, in the period after Independence, India began to witness nearly every possible type of movement of people: short-distance, long-distance, short-term, lifetime, voluntary and distress/crisisled, rural-urban, rural-rural, economic and non-economic. Although the vast majority (95% as per 1971 Census) of Indians lived in the state where they were born, and many never left their home district, the contribution of these myriad patterns of migrations to social and economic transformations in India has been far from marginal. This is a key revelation in this book, based on the most recent research and publications in the relevant areas. Consequently, the book has opened up potentially fruitful vistas for further meticulous multidisciplinary research and systematic study on the interconnections between migration, s ociety, economy, culture and politics.

Finally, Chapter 5 is devoted to Asian migrations from the 1970s till date – i e, roughly in the age of so-called globalisation. Beginning with a short crisp discussion on the distinguishing features of the current age of globalisation, this chapter identifies the contemporary “mobility revolution” (p 4) that has pervaded Asia since the 1970s; it documents and deals with several major trends and themes: inter alia, the dimensions and ramifications of Asian urbanisation in the wake of contemporary globalisation, export of skilled labour and professionals to countries within and beyond Asia, the migration effects of the so-called “southeast Asian miracles” of the 1980s and 1990s (p 167), the response to the “lure of the Gulf” (p 162), the “feminisation” of Asian migration (p 205) as well as refugee movements. Each of these aspects – though dealt with somewhat briefly or sometimes even hurriedly in

Course on Qualitative Methods in Labour Research

(July 2-13, 2012)

V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA invites applications from young teachers and researchers from Universities/Colleges/Research Institutions and professionals in government organizations who intend to pursue their interest in labour research and policy, for participating in the Course on Qualitative Methods in Labour Research, during July 2-13, 2012. The objectives of this course are - (i) To address various concepts and theories related to labour. (ii) To familiarize the participants with the various schools of thought in qualitative research. (iii) To equip participants with the understanding and applicability of various qualitative methods; (iv) To understand analysis and interpretation of qualitative data.

Each of the selected participants would be required to make a brief presentation of a research proposal/paper related to their current theme of research interest, during the course period. There is no course fee and the selected candidates will be provided to-and-fro sleeper class fare and free boarding and lodging during the Course duration.

Details regarding the Course and application form can be downloaded from www. All applications must be accompanied by a no objection certificate/ recommendation of the employer/research supervisor. Applications along with the bio-data and a brief statement of the applicant’s research interests in labour studies may be sent to Dr. Ruma Ghosh, V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, NOIDA- 201301 or at Last date for receiving applications is June 18, 2012.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 26, 2012 vol xlviI no 21


the book – is highly pertinent and rich in its potential for further illumination and insight.

The book under review is remarkable in terms of its superb treatment of such vast phenomena in an extremely precise and highly efficient manner. It would be of great utility to established experts and scholars on migration, and of course to teachers, students, researchers and the social science community at large. In sum, this is a distinguished, exemplary, and above all a “smart” production of lasting value in the fi eld of Asian migrations.

Arup Maharatna ( is at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics.

may 26, 2012 vol xlviI no 21

Economic & Political Weekly

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