Up until Burma’s formal separation from India in 1937, Indians often took the high-ranking positions in the British government of Burma, and the country’s army was composed largely of Indian soldiers.In a 1939 pamphlet on Indo-Burman conflict, a young Communist leader named Thein Pe Myint put it bluntly: “When the British attacked and occupied Lower Burma as well as Upper Burma by unlawful force, their work was done mainly by the Indian Sepoys.These stories were so often repeated, so well worn, that they had very nearly faded into the background, until I noticed a snag—and decided to pull.“We had an Indian cook who made the most delicious curry,” my grandmother often wistfully recalled when speaking of her life back home in Burma.But she offered—always—this caveat: “And he robbed us blind.”I could very nearly taste these vindaloos and dals, given my grandmother’s frequent and lusty recollections, but oh, what a cruel price our family had to pay: unspecified ruby bracelets for untold chicken biryanis.The story my Burmese family told itself went like this: We’d fled the only home we’d known to escape oppression and danger, only to find ourselves in America, strangers in a strange land. We were on the other side of an ocean, the right side of history. And from our vantage across the ocean, we continued to fight for Burma, to support its virtuous freedom fighters with our voices and resources.They harvested crops; they mined silver and lead; they ran ships up and down the Irrawaddy; they moved earth and pulled rickshaws. In 1931, the second most-common occupation held by Indian migrants was domestic service.
Indian immigrants were also Burma’s laboring class.Indian workers—pressing for higher wages from their employers—struck on May 8, 1930, and the largely British firms that hired them broke the picket lines with Burmese workers before quickly cutting a deal with the striking Indians by agreeing to four pence extra per head in daily wages. The lately employed Burmese scabs didn’t appreciate being replaced once the strike was over—keep in mind this was the beginning of the Great Depression—and they took to the streets of Rangoon with swords and iron bars and anything else that could inflict maximum pain.For three days, Indian workers and shops were targeted, and because the capital city was an Indian city, not much of Rangoon functioned during what was termed a riot, but was really a terrifying, bloody rampage: no sanitation systems, few public services, and no business activity to speak of.In 1872, Indians were 16 percent of Rangoon residents. The policies miraculously managed to infuriate the native-born Burmese population for its lack of protections for them and punish the newly arrived Indians, thanks to a lack of protections.Indians migrated in vast numbers: In 1922, 360,000 of them migrated to Burma.