Meet the Researchers: Dr Rajesh Rai (Part II)

8 October, 2014

Dr Rajesh Rai (Assistant Professor in the South Asian Studies Programme and Assistant Director at the Institute of South Asian Studies) recently published Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945 (2014, OUP India). The book, launched on the 26th of September at the National Museum, portrays the rich history of the Indian diaspora from the beginning of Singapore’s British colonial period to the end of the Japanese Occupation. Part 1 of this interview is available here. Dr Rai, who describes himself as very much a traditional historian, is particularly interested in the way history works and focuses on diaspora studies. In Part 2 of this interview, he discusses the Indian diaspora’s role in the success of the Indian Independence Movement (IIM), how this diaspora has changed after Singapore’s Independence, and the most challenging aspects of conducting historical research for the book.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

What we can say about the diaspora’s role in the success of the IIM is that the work on Indian independence has not given sufficient credence to developments outside India in affecting the move toward independence. Certainly by the time the British come back into India, there is already this notion that they are going to leave at some point in time, could be soon, but not yet. They are still holding on to it. But what happens as a result of the file of these guys is really that, A: their own troops begin to rebel, right, as these INA guys are being tried. There’s tightness in an important pillar of the Raj, and I think it speeds up the process; once your army starts to rebel, it just becomes more and more expensive to hold on to India. I think the diaspora had an impact – how big is difficult to claim. I think that its role should be valued for speeding up the move.

How has the diaspora changed after the period you covered?

The plan is to make a second volume that covers the period from 1946 to the present day. I think Singapore’s own political markers are very important in this process. I can see three phases. The first is the era of decolonization to Singapore’s independence (1946 to 1965). Although in Singapore this is problematic because we have two independences, in 1963 and 1965. The second is an age of nation building period that extends to the late 80s. The third is an age of globalization, the global city – beginning in the late 80s. And the next book will be on diaspora in the global city.

Foreign construction workers in Little India


The Indian community here, then, is more tightly knotted into Singaporean identity rather than pan-Indian?

Yes, so as much as you might say, ‘Bring in only those from southern India,’ they come in and are often mislabeled as north Indians because they don’t identify with Dravidian identity. I think you’ll find that the proportion is not that different from before, maybe slightly. That myth is going around, that they are only bringing in north Indians. I don’t see that. The number from the south would exceed 50% easily.

Here, if you look at it in three phases, the second phase of ’65 onwards is the one period when the Indians in Singapore are some ways cut off, because this is about making yourself more Singaporean and what that means for the Indian community. This carries on for over 30 years, and then that age of globalization is a lot about new groups that come in and add more layers to the diaspora. And then the kind of new issues, polarities, new connections that are forged and discovered – that is what I intend to write about.

What were the challenging aspects of locating people to interview or finding the archival material?

Too many. I think there is too much material, but not enough of what you want. Everything needs to be dug into. You go through this mass of material and what I found is that in a book sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a paragraph. You get a book with an old observer account. ‘Fantastic, this guy visited Singapore in the 1850s and he’s written a diary of his trip.’ It was about extracting the six lines, whatever they may be. He may be at Stamford, watching some Indians fly kites.

Some of the primary records are now available in soft copy, some I had to travel to get. The issue is not that I that they don’t exist, but that they are mislabeled. I don’t always know which category the materials I need have been slotted in. There are some I just couldn’t find. I wonder whether they are really lost. I don’t believe anybody bothered to at this stage hide it. It’s just been put in some other place.

So it was easier to deal with locating people rather than locating records?

So far as oral interviews are concerned, we have a decent resource in the National Archives, and somebody has categorized it decently. When it comes to records, our National Archives don’t even have good colonial records and they don’t open up the new records anyway. For oral interviews, it’s not bad.


National Archives of Singapore in 2006 

You can actually read all the occupation stories. And so you get 300 interviews with 300, out of which there will be 30, 40 Indians. That’s very good, very helpful. And I did some of my own interviews in addition to that. But it’s difficult for that period. How many 90-year-olds do I have to interview who can actually give me the really detailed stuff?

Maybe you spoke to their children?

Yes, I did some of that. There are many people that I met who told me their dad’s story. But you have to be very, very careful about that type of information. If you don’t cross-check it, you will see how it keeps changing. In just the reports of my book so far, I see how I cannot rely on newspapers to tell what I’ve already told in the book. I told the journalist that there were more than 78,000 who were taken for labor on the

Thai-Burma railway. Out of these the majority were Indians. Of the 78,000, more than 30,000 died. Now it has been changed into 30,000 Indians died. You see, even in newspaper reports things change very quickly. In history, you just have to keep cross-checking it and say, okay, this is just not accurate any more. So, especially for accounts of people here, I have to be very, very careful. But it is the kind of work I like to do.