Conflicting Paths and Perceptions: The Lived Experiences of Tamil Migrants in Malaysia during the Long Twentieth Century (1890-1990)

During the pre-colonial era, caste represented the cultural and religious hierarchy of Hindus throughout South and Southeast Asia. However, taking a deeper look, the concept of caste is not unique to the sub-continent and its outlying areas. European entities also employed caste within the domain of colonial categorization by utilizing hierarchy to influence notions of inferiority and superiority amongst the colonized. In addition, migratory connections between South and South-East Asia as part of the Indian Ocean World (Amrith; Chakrabarty) ensured that these locally constructed categories and identities were embedded in and battled out in a much larger ethnic and geographic framework.

This novel research project presents the lived experiences of Tamil communities in Malaysia as a perfect case to study these colonial categorizations and their aftermath in the highly migratory South and South East Asia. Though they are ethnically similar, Sri Lankan Tamil Malaysians and Indian Tamil Malaysians view each other as separate entities. The Tamil diaspora has a long history in the Indian Ocean World exhibited through trading processes, ports along the Coromandel Coast and Bay of Bengal, religion, clothing, and cultural entities. How has colonial categorization played a role in identity formation among the Tamil diaspora of Malaysia? How does paths and perceptions of Tamil minority groups in the region differ based on their distinct migrational patterns? Where do lines of influence and identity formation blur to create the complex experiences of the South Asian diaspora in Malaysia? This novel research project for the first time analyzes the historical trajectory of migration as essential building blocks to review the inner divisions among Tamil cultural life scripts in Malaysia.

The kanganysystem in colonial South and South East Asia oversaw Indian migrant labour in India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia from the nineteenth century onwards. Through a review of this system, this research project explores notions of the imagined community, as well as, migratory patterns of Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil migrants through census, recruitment and missionary document analysis. Oral history will complement this archival research to demonstrate identity development over the long twentieth century. Thus, we can come to understand the dynamic dualism between long-standing South Asian historical influences in South-East Asia versus Tamil experiences in everyday Malaysian life.

Supervisors: Prof. Jan Kok, Dr Dries Lyna and Dr Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University)

Financing: RICH

Start: September 1, 2016