Migration, Caste, and the Figure of the 'Coolie' in Indian Diplomatic History

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’.