MSAS Seminar: Migration, Caste, and the Figure of the ‘Coolie’ in Indian Diplomatic History - Kalathmika Natarajan (Exeter)

Chair: Kate Sullivan De Estrada

Speaker: Kalathmika Natarajan (Exeter) 

This talk explores the histories, journeys, and legacies of 'coolie' migrants as central to the making of Indian diplomacy.  I argue that the Indian state framed the 'international' realm as a sanctified space to negotiate what it deemed the 'coolie stain' on its reputation, a discourse shaped by the intersections of caste and class. While examining indenture and the regulation of mobility as intrinsic to postcolonial Indian diplomacy, I also seek to foreground how these migrants themselves actively conceptualised their international status. Through three case studies spanning across geographical and temporal contexts - the interwar ‘scandal’ of quarantine at the Mandapam camp en-route to Ceylon,  the curtailment of 'undesirable' postcolonial migration through a discretionary Indian passport policy, and the diplomatic anxieties over 'unskilled' and 'unsanitary' Indian migrants in postwar Britain - this talk examines the ways in which Indian diplomacy was shaped by a caste-coded paranoia over the mobility of the 'coolie'.

Kalathmika Natarajan is Lecturer in Modern South Asian History at the University of Exeter. She is working on a book provisionally titled Coolie Migrants and the Making of Indian Diplomacy (forthcoming with Hurst), which recovers the ways in which caste, migration, and the regulation of mobility shaped Indian diplomacy. Her article exploring the history of India's postcolonial passport regime through its efforts to prevent the mobility of ‘lower’ caste and class migrants has been published recently in Modern Asian Studies. She is also co-editing a special issue on 'Caste and Diplomacy' for the Hague Journal of Diplomacy.