The Indian Diaspora in Myanmar

Although Hindi film songs seem to be popular in Myanmar, Hindi is not a language anyone seems to be familiar with. So when you hear Hindi, Bengali, or Gujarati on the road you know for sure that the speaker has some connection with India. As I rushed through a market in Mandalay, I passed the eatery you can see in the featured photo. I’d just lost track of The Family, and peeped in to see whether she was sitting in this unlikely place. The man at the far counter greeted me in Hindi, letting me know that he was of Indian origin.

A Bihari migrant in Pyin Oo Lwin in MyanmarI’d run into another Hindi speaker in Myanmar before this. A happy young man driving a horse carriage in Pyin Oo Lwin called out to me in Hindi. As I turned, I saw he was wearing a big grin. We introduced ourselves; his name was Mahesh. He said that his grandfather had come to Myanmar as a groom in the British army and never went back to his village. Mahesh knew that a town near his ancestral village was called Arrah. This is in the western part of Bihar. His father succumbed to the charms of a Burmese girl, and now Mahesh is married to one as well. His family speaks Hindi at home, and, of course, they watch movies. He’s never been to India.

I’d also had a similar run in with Abdul, who owns a grocery store in Pyin Oo Lwin. He called out to me in Hindi. He is also a third generation resident of Myanmar.A shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar He was not very clear about why his grandfather had left India. During the years of British Raj people were uprooted from their villages in India and sent across the world for many different reasons. Abdul’s grandfather may have been one of these victims of imperialism. Abdul knew that his ancestral home was near a town called Faizabad. This is in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. His grandfather and father married other Indian immigrants, as did he. They spoke Hindi at home, and he’s never been to India.

Bengali mosque next to the Sule Pagoda in Yangon in MyanmarI guess there is a concentration of immigrants in the region around Mandalay. I met another pocket of immigrants in Yangon. The mosque which you see in this photo stands right next to the Sule pagoda in the centre of Yangon. Large friendly letters across the front say that it is a Bengali mosque. I suppose that many of the people who come here have ancestral homes in present day Bangladesh. I did not meet any of them, but it is conceivable that there is a small number of Indian Bengali muslims in the same jamaat.

I ran into many Indians at the mosque of Bahadur Shah Zafar. We wanted to see the grave of the last Mughal emperor which is inside this structure. Prayers at the Bahadur Shah mosque in Yangon in Myanmar We arrived when prayers were on, and had to wait for a while. As I waited I noticed a boy wearing a white and gold cap which looked like it could belong to a Bohra of Gujarat. Next to him was a gentleman in a dark shirt who looked Indian. I looked more carefully at the jamaat (congregation) and thought that several of the faces could be from parts of India: some Bengali, some Gujarati and maybe a few from other parts of North India. This kind of guessing is terribly error-prone in Myanmar with its incredible human variety. After the prayers finished I chatted with several of the people. Most were businessmen, and several were of Gujarati origin. They are better off; some have travelled to India, but think of themselves as Myanmarese. While I talked to the Gujaratis I could hear a little Bengali in the background, but they were gone by the time I finished.

Apparently there are many Tamil and Telugu immigrants to Myanmar as well, but I did not run into any. I found later that many Indians were expelled from Myanmar by the military government. They were barred from holding administrative posts or joining the military, and are not considered to be citizens of Myanmar. I understand that the current civilian government has not changed these policies as yet.

The birthplace of modern India

Of course I am exaggerating a little, because nothing as big as a nation has a single origin. But you could make a case that the British Raj took the First War of Independence of 1857 as an excuse to destroy the old India. Today’s nation, in a sense, is a work of restoration, made up by sticking together recoverable bits of the old with serviceable new pieces from elsewhere. When you stand at the tomb of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, random thoughts like this are inevitable.

After the war was lost, the British Raj was established and Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Yangon to live out the last days of his life. This was a mirror of the exile of Burma’s last king, Thibaw, to Ratnagiri. Bahadur Shah was a poet, and perhaps one of the most famous poems attributed to him starts with the line "Lagta nahi hai dil mera, ujre dayaar mein" (I find no pleasure in this derelict city). The problem with this neat story is that city is more likely to be Delhi than the then-little port of Yangon, apart from the fact that there is a recent dispute about the authorship of this ghazal.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar in YangonWhen Bahadur Shah died in 1862, his body was buried in secrecy. Over the years a tradition grew which said his body was buried in the mosque in Yangon named after him. The photo you see here is a modern tomb constructed next to the jamaatkhana (prayer hall) of the mosque. The grave with the neon crown is supposed to be the emperor’s and the other two are supposed to be of two of his wives.

Strangely, an excavation in the late 1980s revealed a hidden grave one level below this, and studies eventually led to the conclusion that the hidden grave genuinely contained the remains of the last Mughal emperor. In 1994 Myanmar and India together constructed the little underground memorial which you see in the featured photo. It stands directly below the traditional spot in the other photo.

Myanmar has a treasure trove of British documents from these last years of Bahadur Shah’s life, stored as pdf files in its national archives. They were first described in William Dalrymple’s book on Bahadur Shah, but I’m sure there is material enough for many historians in Yangon.