For centuries, Europeans travelled to India for trade and conquest with a missionary zeal and got their statues built all over the subcontinent. In the 20th century, Indians began to move to Europe with greater verve than any time in the past, for trade, studies and work, and finally got a chance to build their own statues all over Europe.
The story of Indians in the UK is well chronicled as are the statues of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar that lie within a square kilometre in the heart of London. Outside the UK, Indians are found in many European countries by the tens of thousands, notably in Germany (the high-tech sector) and Belgium (diamonds). But arguably the most fascinating developments of the Indian diaspora have taken place in Spain and Italy over the past two decades.
In both these countries, it is the Punjabis who have made a mark, but with sharply differing community profiles. Punjab, more specifically the eastern doab region comprising places such as Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur, has been a hotspot of what I call the Great Indian Migration Wave — a remarkable episode in global migration history of persistent, male-dominated, circular relocation spanning well over a century. This small cluster within Punjab has spawned a large diaspora within India and around the world, from Hong Kong to Argentina, primarily comprising of Jat Sikhs. Spain and Italy are two recent entrants in this universe.
The Spanish experience has been unique in recent waves of Indian emigration, in that it extends beyond upper caste social groups that have dominated emigration to, say, the US. Along with Jat Sikhs, members of the Ravidassia community have also migrated, carving niches in the construction and catering sectors of Barcelona — more generally, Catalonia.
Catalonia witnessed all the caste battles that are routinely experienced back home, as the Ravidassias attempted to forge their own identity. They also moved away from mainstream Sikhism after the assassination of their key spiritual guru in Vienna in 2009. Just like the message of the 2011 movie, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which introduced Spain to a wide Indian audience and encouraged more Indian tourists to visit Spain, the Ravidassias are realising that you live only once and this life needs to count more than what has been preordained.
The total number of Indians in Italy has now crossed 200,000, making it the largest Indian diaspora in continental Europe and far greater than the 30,000 estimated in Spain. This Indian contingent is mainly made up of Punjabi Jat Sikhs. These people toil away in the dairy and agricultural sectors of northern Italy. They are now known as “cow-milkers” or bergamini, in Italian. While the earlier migration wave was almost overwhelmingly dominated by men, more women have started migrating in recent years. These women are primarily driven by the urge to be with the menfolk who had migrated earlier, rather than staying back and facing the challenges of loneliness in remote fields.
Apart from Punjabis, Roman Catholic Keralites can also be found working in the domestic service sector in and around Rome. Most people in this category are women. There is the desi hand in the care of the aged as well as the production of milk and cheese in Italy.
Migration to Italy has also spurred international trade from India, as migrants carry over ethnic preferences for food and clothing. In Europe, Italy is a major trading partner with India for rice, lentils and spices, besides the UK.
In both the countries, Indian statues and gurdwaras have sprung up, reflecting Indian contributions to continental Europe in the recent past. To get a glimpse of a longer period of history, it is worth walking along the Arno river to Cascine Park in the city of the Renaissance, Florence, in Italy. There, undisturbed, lies a white marble statue of the Maharaja of Kolhapur Rajaram II (1850-70). The young prince was returning to India after a visit to Britain and unexpectedly died in Florence due to an illness. His ashes were scattered in the Arno after a cremation at night. And so in the city of beautiful bridges like the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte Santa Trinita, the bridge leading to his statue across the river was named Ponte all’Indiano.
Indian tourists are advised to check it out, for it is literally a bridge between Europe and India, topped up today with a touch of the bhangra.
(Chinmay Tumbe is faculty member at IIM-Ahmedabad and is the author of India Moving: A History of Migration)
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