Citizenship Along Ethnic Lines: The Disenfranchised Indians of Madagascar

Published: 1/Feb/2020
Source: The Wire (Delhi)

Madagascar’s restrictive citizenship policy is not an outlier but a trendsetter as countries around the world look to preserve their ethnic mix or wholly exclude communities.

Karan Mahajan

The western coast of the island nation of Madagascar is a nullity of scrub. Driving north in a 4×4, I passed acres of stunted bush, parched yellow grass, grazing cows and tilting thatched huts. Then a curtain of orange fire, ten-feet high, shimmered close to the car; other grass-guzzling dwarf fires blazed beyond. The countryside was burning. It had been burning for a hundred years. The dense lemur-filled forests of Madagascar – one of the poorest countries in the world — had been harvested for charcoal and slashed and burned for agriculture. Ahead, the two-lane “national highway” degraded into a mere tightrope of tar surrounded by long ditches of gravel and mud with potholes as deep as jacuzzis.

To distract myself from my growing nausea, I decided to ask my driver about the more than 20,000-strong Indian population of ­Madagascar, whom I had come to write about.

Madagascar has a population of 26 million, the vast majority of whom are ethnically Malagasy — descendants of the Malayo-­Indonesian and African people who settled the uninhabited island approximately 2,000 years ago. Even today, one can see the imprint of Indonesia in their language and their elaborate rituals for the dead.

But Madagascar also has pockets of minorities, of whom the most visible and successful are the Indians, who came across the Indian Ocean as traders and settled here 150 years ago. Yet the Indians today are defined by a problem: Despite their deep ties to Madagascar, most of them are not — and cannot become — citizens. A 2017 UN High Commissioner for Refugees report on “stateless minorities” singled out the Indians of ­Madagascar — or Karanas, as they are known — alongside groups like the Roma in Macedonia and the Pemba and Makonde of Kenya.

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Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Statelessness
Regions: Madagascar
Year: 2020