On people marked as South Asians in Germany

This is a short history migration of people of 'Indian origin' to 'Germany'. All the footnotes and bibliographic references of the original text have been taken out for the online version.

‘Germany’ has never been a major destination for migrants from ‘India’. It does not possess the same pull factors for migration as the US, Canada, the UK or ‘Middle East’. English is not spoken, there are hardly any ‘Indian’ networks fostering chain migration, no welcoming immigration policy lures the migrants, job opportunities for ‘foreigners’ are restricted. Thus in 2003 only 43,566 Indian citizens and estimated 17,500 PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card holders , as well as uncounted others of ‘Indian origin’ who have some other citizenship, live in ‘Germany’. Compared to more than two million people of ‘Turkish origin’ in ‘Germany’ these numbers hardly matter. There are also fewer people of ‘Indian’ than those of ‘Afghan’ or ‘Sri Lankan origin’ living in ‘Germany’.

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‘Freedom Fighters’ in ‘Germany’

Even if it has not been a major destination, ‘Germany’ has for the last century more or less continuously attracted a small number of migrants from ‘India’, mostly male students and interns. Before ‘Indian’ independence ‘Germany’ was not only an attractive place for studying (as its universities were well renowned for engineering and sciences), but also because ‘Germany’s’ colonial past never involved interference in ‘India’ and since ‘Germany’ was an enemy of the colonial power ‘Great Britain’. Before and after the ‘World War’ of 1914 to 1918 ‘freedom fighters’, many of them socialists, came to ‘Germany’, established offices and made it a node in their transnational network.
Once the national socialists had acquired power in ‘Germany’ the situation not only for socialists, but for ‘Indians’ in general deteriorated. According to the national socialists’ concept of ‘race’ they were less worth than the ‘Germans’, were not allowed to marry ‘Germans’ and could also face other discriminations. Subhas Chandra Bose was not deterred by this, he believed that he could gain the ‘German’ government as an ally in his struggle for ‘freedom’. Although Hitler did not support the ‘Indian’ cause, he agreed for strategical reasons to support some of Bose’s ideas. Thus an ‘Indian Legion’ within the ‘German’ SS as well as a magazine and a broadcasting station Azad Hind were established in ‘Germany’ with ‘German’ funds. None of these, however, ever played any important part in the ‘Indian freedom movement’. By the end of the war there were hardly any ‘Indians’ left in ‘Germany’. Some of the ‘German’ officers of the ‘Indian Legion’, however, continued their interest in ‘India’ and established the Indo-German Society in 1953, which still today is the biggest bilateral cultural organisation in ‘Germany’.

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Individual Students and Interns

Soon after the ‘Second World War’ the individual migration of single male students and interns both to the Federal Republic of ‘Germany’ (‘West Germany’) and the ‘German’ Democratic Republic (‘East Germany’) restarted. Most came from a middle class urban background, had an English education and were supported by their families. In the 1950s and 60s ‘West Germany’ was in a phase of fast economic growth, qualified jobs were available for the well educated ‘Indians’. While ‘West Germany’ was like most other countries structurally racist, this did not affect the migrants from India too much in this phase as the racism expressed itself mainly through institutional exclusion and exoticism rather than in direct violence. Open racism was much directed against the so called ‘guest workers’ who were recruited from the Mediterranean countries. Many of the ‘Indian’ migrants settled with good jobs, married ‘German’ spouses or were followed by their ‘Indian’ ones, and founded families. In ‘West Germany’ they founded societies like the Bharat Majlis or joined the Indo-German Society. Since they were still few in numbers, had come individually and there was no real concentration from any one of the Indian regions, the societies were mostly pan-Indian, often also open to ‘Pakistanis’.

A religious infrastructure was hardly established by this first phase of migrants. They performed rituals if at all in private and occasionally celebrated festivals like Diwali, but mostly in a rather ‘secular’ way . Visible is the performance of Indian Hindu rituals in ‘Germany’ almost only at the regular Durga Puja festivals organised by ‘Bengali’ migrants. There used to be also more public festivals and events organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose ‘German’ branch was founded in the 1960s. In the beginning it was attracting several prominent ‘Indian’ members and gained support from ‘German’ authorities by claiming to be a cultural organisation preserving ‘Indian’ traditions in ‘Germany’. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, however, open support for the VHP in ‘Germany’ diminished. Today it is still active, organising for example youth camps, but keeps a low public profile. There is no real opposition to its activities as in general there seems to be little critical awareness about Hindu nationalism in ‘Germany’.

There have been several attempts to establish a society representing all ‘Indians’, but none of these has been able to establish itself as a voice of the ‘Indians’ in ‘Germany’. Some ‘Indian’ migrants like the mayor of Altlandsberg Ravi Gujjula have gone into politics. Some of these may want to represent an assumed ‘Indian’ community, but their field of action remains restricted to their particular municipality, and their support by people of ‘Indian origin’ is limited. The two members of the federal parliament of ‘Indian’ origin, Sebastian Edathy and Josef Winkler, are ‘Indians’ of the second generation. They are both aware of their biographical links to India and in particular of their othering experiences as ‘foreigners’ in ‘Germany’, but neither of the two considers himself to be ‘Indian’ or to represent the ‘Indians’ in ‘Germany’.

Further material on the students:

Nurses from Kerala

Indian Hinduism is neither very publicly performed in ‘Germany’ nor is it the clearly dominant religion among migrants from ‘India’. Due to the fast economic growth there was in the 1960s a shortage of staff in the health sector in ‘West Germany’. Catholic hospitals and homes for the elderly filled this gap by recruiting young Christian nurses and trainee nurses from Kerala. In contrast to the student migrants these young women came from rural backgrounds, migrated in groups and were looked after by the Catholic institutions. An own religious and social infrastructure for them developed. Many of the nurses lived together in small groups, spoke Malayalam and there were ‘Indian’ priests and social workers. When in the 1970s an economic recession started in ‘West Germany’, many of the federal states did not extend the work permits of the formerly much needed nurses from India. Collective actions were taken by the nurses against this by for example writing letters to the authorities, by this they were successful in gaining some publicity but not in changing politics. Many of the nurses had to return to India, some could stay as they were married to ‘Germans’, others migrated within ‘West Germany’ to less restrictive federal states or to other destinations abroad. Thus the liberal state of Nordrhine-Westphalia developed into the centre of ‘Malayali’ settlement.
Most of the nurses who stayed in ‘Germany’ were by now attractive spouses on the Indian marriage market and had an arranged marriage in India during the 1970s. Many brought their mostly graduate husbands back with them. But due to the restrictive ‘West German’ immigration policy the latter were for the first years of their residence not eligible for a work permit. Few used this time to attain further qualifications, most stayed at home, did some housework and looked after the children. Thus the legal regulations resulted in a change of gender roles with the wives being the one earning the money, knowing the language and the country, while the husbands were restricted to the private sphere and felt alien in ‘Germany’. One escape from this situation was to found a plethora of societies for sports, theatre, culture, etc. and thus enlarging the ‘Malayali’ infrastructure in ‘West Germany’. When the husbands finally got work permits, most of them could enter the labour market only in the less skilled sector, which was not only below their Indian qualification but also below their wives’ position. This perceived degradation of the husbands in the economic and social sphere led to many problems, which in extreme cases ended in alcoholism and domestic violence. Today the ‘Malyali’ migrants are reaching their retirement age and have to decide whether they will return to Kerala, where most seem to have built houses, or stay in ‘Germany’, where their children are settled and they have spent most of their lives themselves.

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Marginalised Sikhs

Another Indian religious group which has established a religious infrastructure in ‘West Germany’ are the Sikhs, who have founded several gurdwaras, especially in the area of Frankfurt/Main. Since the immigration policy had become more restrictive in the 1970s few ‘Indian’ migrants were able to legally enter the country. Legal forms of entry were as a student, a spouse or an asylum seeker. The latter chance was sought by many Sikhs from Punjab to flee from the violence following the demand for an independent ‘Khalistan’ and the riots of 1984. Although the ‘German’ authorities did not grant asylum to Indian applicants, the asylum seekers could at least stay as long as the legal procedures lasted. After the refusal of asylum they could stay on in ‘Germany’ only if they married ‘German’ spouses, or if they opted for an undocumented stay with constant danger of being uncovered and deported. Few of the Sikh asylum seekers were able to establish themselves in the skilled labour force, most were forced by their precarious legal status to do unskilled or semiskilled work.

Transnational IT experts

The end of the 1990s brought again a change in the immigration policies of the now unified ‘Germany’. ‘Malayali’ nurses, whose work permit was not extended in the 1970s, were now allowed to come back to ‘Germany’ as there was a new scarcity of staff in the health sector. The major change came in the year 2000 when the ‘German’ chancellor announced a ‘Green Card’ programme for IT specialists and especially mentioned ‘Indians’. The conservative opposition countered this by a campaign which was soon known as Kinder statt Inder (children instead of Indians) and which was the first racist campaign explicitly directed against ‘Indian’ migrants. The programme, however, was not as attractive for ‘Indian’ IT specialists as the ‘German’ politicians had thought. The restriction of the ‘Green Card’ to five years, the ‘German’ language, the lacking ‘Indian’ networks in ‘Germany’ and the racist atmosphere deterred many computer specialists from migrating to ‘Germany’. Nonetheless in absolute terms a significant number of young ‘Indian’ professionals came, some bringing their families along. As a consequence the total of Indian citizens living in ‘Germany’ went up from about 35,000 at the end of the 1990s to more than 43,000 in 2003.

The new migrants work and live mostly in the urban centres like Munich, and have developed their own networks, suiting their particular needs. As they were allowed to stay only five years, they did not really settle down, but rather considered themselves sojourners. They keep looking for career opportunities in other countries, focus on their work and their transnational networks. Many hardly learn German, and out of work do not interact much with ‘Germans’, both because it is difficult to establish contacts and because they do not consider it important enough to make this effort.

Further material on IT experts:

The second generation

Sometimes, especially at ‘ethnic’ parties, the ‘Indian’ IT specialists meet the members of the second generation , who are more or less of the same age. But otherwise there is not much which unites them, their interests and needs are different . The second generation ‘Indians’ have been brought up in ‘Germany’, this is the country they know, ‘German’ is their language. ‘India’ is a far off country, which they have limited knowledge of. Few have travelled there regularly or have even lived there for some time. Some have the Indian citizenship, others do not. Few speak an Indian language fluently, few practice an Indian religion. Their link to India is given through their parents and the othering through the ‘German’ society. The markers of their otherness are their (and/or their parents’) names and skin colour, in some cases also family values and experiences. To deal with their double otherness – being different from their parents and relatives in India as well as different from their ‘German’ environment – they have started in the middle of the 1990s to establish their own spaces, in particular organising parties and creating websites.

Further material on the second generation:

© Urmila Goel, urmila.de / english / Germany 2011