Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sepoys, Convicts and the 'Bazaar' Contingent: The Emergence and Exclusion of 'Hindustani' Pioneers at the Singapore Frontier

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sepoys, Convicts and the 'Bazaar' Contingent: The Emergence and Exclusion of 'Hindustani' Pioneers at the Singapore Frontier

Article excerpt

Within the Indian diaspora, which makes up approximately 7 per cent of Singapore's population, two subcategories emerge as particularly salient bases for community: subdivisions based on religion and ethnic differences based on place of origin. At one level the latter subcategory has adopted a north--south divide which is particularly salient in Singapore and Malay(si)a. At another, the mid-categories 'south' and 'north' can themselves be subdivided along regional lines--Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Bengali, etc. It has often been the case, however, that the history of subordinate communities has been appropriated by larger groups that are seen to define the 'racial' category in and of themselves. A void exists in literature of the migration processes and development of various Indian communities in Singapore which are 'overshadowed by the more numerous and visually distinctive Tamilian and Sikh communities'. (1) The study of these subaltern communities, many of whom have played a significant role in Singapore's early development, is especially urgent given the changes in the country's population. Although the government has pledged to maintain the broader 'multiracial profile' of the population, such a promise does not extend to specific 'racial' sub-categories, many of whom risk losing their distinct status or identification.

The lacuna for subordinate Indian communities is especially extensive in the case of migrants from Uttar Pradesh in Singapore. Various labels exist for this community such as 'Bengali', 'Baboos', 'UPwallahs', 'Bhojpuris', 'Biharis' and recently even 'Hindis'. ('Bengali' is obviously a misnomer, used by non-Indians or South Indians, though the name may have been derived from their membership in the Bengal Native Infantry. Some were indeed Biharis, but this was only a subset of the larger community.) This group is labelled here as 'Hindustani', the most common term used by members of this community--particularly elders--to identify themselves. Although 'Hindustani' is an ambiguous term (when literally translated as 'Hindu-land people'), with nationalist reverberations, historically the term 'Hindustan' has held special significance for the people of Uttar Pradesh. Long seen as the imagined 'heartland' of India, 'Hindustan' was the popular designation for this region (present-day Uttar Pradesh and north-western Bihar) in the early period of British expansion. (2) Moreover, there exists a strong linguistic association with the 'Hindustani' language--a combination of Hindi and Urdu which, despite the presence of various vernaculars, was the accepted lingua franca of Uttar Pradesh in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hindustani migrants have been crucial to the development of two trades in Singapore--washer-men (dhobis) and dairy farmers (doodhwallahs)--in which they occupied an important, if not the dominant position for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the advent of washing machines, imported packed milk and state policy against the use of scarce land resources for farming activities made these 'vanishing' trades. Other economic functions included a strong presence amongst watchmen (chowkidar), prison warders, tea-shop owners (chaiwallahs), Indian sweet-meat traders (mithaiwallah) and betel-leaf sellers (paanwallahs).

In addition, Hindustanis have contributed to the 'production and reproduction of social and cultural phenomena' in Singapore. (3) The only (official) north Indian Hindu temple, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, has since its formation been dominated by migrants from Uttar Pradesh. Two other predominantly 'north' Indian Hindu organisations in Singapore, the North Indian Hindu Association (founded in 1921) and the Arya Samaj (founded in 1927), were formed through the initiative of the Hindustani community. (4) In addition, these migrants have been central in spearheading Hindi education so that Hindi has since the early 1990s received official sanction in the national curriculum as a 'mother tongue'. …

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