ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Circular Migration and Repatriation: Oral Histories of Burmese-Indians in West Bengal


Chatterjee Saheli - Geneva Graduate Institute, International History and Politics, Geneva, Switzerland


16 – Re-orienting Borderlands:Beyond spatial fixations in South Asia


 In the last two decades, a vibrant field of global, transnational and oceanic history challenged prototypical South and Southeast Asian territorial groupings of analysis. Historians of Indian Ocean’s maritime space analysed circular migration patterns and overlapping cultures of “littoral communities” (Amrith, 2013). They demonstrated, in a global history framework, how relationships were forged and how these relationships broke down in the mid-twentieth century with the experiences of the Great Depression, the Second World War and finally with the emergence of independent, territorially bounded states. In this paper, it is within this historiographical framing that I wish to place the history of the “Burmese-Indian repatriate”—second or third generation Indians born in Burma, who repatriated to India in the 1960s-80s, with the inception of military dictatorship in Burma. I hope to share excerpts from ongoing oral history interviews conducted with “Burmese-Indian repatriates” in West Bengal to demonstrate how they perceived their lives in Burma. The oral history interviews demonstrate their unique mental cartographies of belonging—raising questions about belongingness tied to which place and to whom. The paper aims to highlight how the legacies of circular migration gave shape to the experiences of repatriation and the pursuit of citizenship in India. The paper, then, will also inform emerging debates about the partition between India and Burma (Guyot-Réchard, 2020).