Indentured Migration, Caste and Electoral Competition in Colonial India

Emigration has the potential to shape the political dynamics at the point of origin because it can expose migrants to new political ideas, augment their human capital, and alter their expectations of their home environment. We study the association between indentured migration from India to British colonies, following the end of slavery, and electoral competition in the first elections held in colonial India in 1920. Using ship registers of indentured emigrants to the British colony of Natal, constituency-level electoral returns, and district-level economic and political controls, we find that districts that sent more migrants, were associated with more competitive elections—-higher turnout and tighter races. We rank the subcastes of individual migrants using the social rankings of castes in the census of 1901. We focus on two key mechanisms:

First, we explore if a greater share of intermediate castes relative to their share in the population was associated with increased competition. Intermediate castes were historically socially marginalised, and key beneficiaries of the franchise expansion.

Second, we explore whether districts that sent more migrants to sectors with harsh and integrated labour conditions, sugar and coal in Natal had more competitive politics. Exposure to life in the colonies could have led to greater political consciousness in these sectors. We find evidence for both these channels. Our results use the 1923 elections.