'To get work as seamen or ashore': Notes on Researching the Punjabi Diaspora in Britain

-Silas Webb, PhD Candidate in History

The last few months have been intense; or, should I say, they’ve been an initiation. In June, I was immersed in Punjabi, thanks to a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) that I received from the US State Department. It took six of the eight weeks to get a firm grasp on where Hindi ends and Punjabi begins. But it was well worth the work, and the wait. I became a part of a cohort of fun and fantastically smart students and the foundational language instruction was invaluable.Silas, second in from the left, on a trip to India duing his Punjabi language program in Chandigarh

In October, I arrived in Birmingham (England), to embark on research into the Papers of the Indian Workers Association, an organization that was founded in the late-1930s to help Indian, mostly Punjabi, workers navigate their adopted homes in Britain. This archive has caused me to wonder where one must research in order to be considered a South Asianist or a Europeanist, as half of the records and a majority of the correspondence is in Punjabi. Regardless of subfields, this time has given me new appreciation for my hot summer in Chandigarh.

My research examines a the evolution of diasporic political identity among Punjabi travelers, which seeks to connect inter-war, militant anti-colonialism emanating from the Ghadar Party in San Francisco to the post-war radicalism of the Indian Workers Association. In the 1930s, Punjabis were recruited to study Marxism and foment rebellion; their sojourn to London was noted with concern. These organizations are vital to understanding Punjabi politics prior to the Sikh separatism of the late-1970s.

By approaching this story as a global history of Punjab, my dissertation hopes to engage with the ways in which migrants resisted British colonialism in India and how, after Independence, that transformed into migrant workers mobilizing against imperialism, seen as a production of racial chauvinism and capitalist exploitation.