The dreams of a diaspora

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee delivers the inaugural speech at the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi on January 9. -

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee delivers the inaugural speech at the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi on January 9. -

The first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas attempts to bring Non-Resident Indians on a platform and address issues pertinent to the diaspora.

PERHAPS it is indifference from the country of their residence or a deeper search for self-identification that makes the diaspora nostalgic and leads them to conjure an image of their homeland in pleasing, often vivid colours. For the majority of the delegates who attended the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) from January 9 to 11, the dream of the homeland was a unifying factor.

At the end of the event, it was difficult to disagree with Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who in his cryptic style said that the event had the "element of a trade fair". The fact that the government had spent Rs.11 crores seemed even more unpalatable in the absence of any policy framework or recommendations, barring a few grand announcements made by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh.

However, the conference brought forth an interesting range of views on the question of identity and what it means to be an Indian, besides bringing up suggestions on how to transform India into a super power. Ultimately, the overriding opinion was that the organisers should have come up with a package that would help Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and People of Indian Origin (PIO) to invest in the country of their origin and contribute to its progress in a more holistic manner. Throughout the conference, comparisons were made with China; the message being that the Indian diaspora should contribute to India's development much the same way as their Chinese counterparts do. However, the point that was missed was the fact that the investment patterns of overseas Chinese in their homeland was not motivated by familial or cultural ties but by the opportunities that the mainland offered.

The announcement of dual citizenship to Indians in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and a few other hand-picked countries left the sizable majority, who live in other countries, puzzled and disgruntled. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani explained that security was the prime consideration while deciding the issue. The announcements made by Vajpayee included a compulsory insurance scheme for Indian workers migrating to Gulf countries. Vajpayee said: "Parliament is already considering a Bill to establish a welfare fund for overseas Indian workers. To meet the educational needs of their children, we plan to reserve a certain portion of seats in academic institutions." The second major bonanza for the delegates was on the economic front, with the Finance Minister announcing a major relaxation in capital controls on the second day of the conference. This means that Indian residents, - including individuals, corporates and mutual funds, can invest in the equity of companies listed on recognised overseas stock exchanges, provided these companies have at least 10 per cent shareholding in a company listed on an Indian exchange. While there is no limit on individual investments, the ceiling on corporate investment has been fixed at 25 per cent of the net worth of the investing company and the collective ceiling for mutual funds at $1 billion. Analysts point out that most of the relaxation measures that were announced were likely to benefit resident Indians rather than NRIs. For NRIs, Jaswant Singh had only one gift - the facility to remit proceeds of up to $1 million from asset transfers in India. The government's objective in announcing this measure was clear - ensure that the rupee takes a big leap towards full convertibility.

Jaswant Singh said that the announcement of these measures was a "starter" on reforms, and that within a month the government would come up with more measures to provide a boost to infrastructure sectors such as ports, airports and airlines, apart from the ongoing highway projects. Given the political pushes that exist within the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the pressures from its alliance partners, it remains to be seen when and how these measures will take off.

Over the three days of activity, which included wide-ranging panel discussions on culture, language, science, health care, hospitality, education and financial services, the common thread was the definition of an Indian. The delegates discussed a wide range of questions, including why the diaspora need India. The loudest applause went to the speech made by Navnit Dholakia from the House of Lords, U.K. He said that just as Hanuman, when asked to prove his loyalty to Ram, tore open his chest to reveal an image of Ram and Sita, NRIs, if asked to prove their loyalty to India, could open their hearts to reveal a map of India. On a more serious note, Bhikhu Parekh, a member of the British House of Lords and Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, emphasised that the diaspora was worried about their children going native in their country of residence. "They are finding themselves in countries where the local civilisation is more influential than the one they left at home. They find they cannot hold on to their culture, and are therefore in a state of panic. They look towards `Mother India' to help them hold on to their children and grandchildren. Cultural help is very important for overseas Indians."

Others like Vijay Singh, a filmmaker from France, whose movie Jayaganga drew favourable international response, tried to dispel the `confused desi' tag attached to Indians abroad. He said: "Most people dream of going abroad. When they reach abroad India becomes a dream. The aesthetic consciousness of India brings in a new form of sadness, which stays with an expatriate. Cinema and art can be used to fill the aesthetic consciousness." Refering to the popularity of Bollywood cinema, film director Subhash Ghai spoke of how his perceptions about expatriates were showcased in his movies Pardes and Taal. Said Ghai: "I kept their story line to Indian souls dreaming Indian dreams in a vibrant foreign land."

Explaining why Indians abroad need to be proud of where they come from, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said, "We need to ask ourselves why we should be proud of being Indians." Criticising the growing tendency within the country to project itself as an exclusive society, Sen stressed the catholic nature of Indian culture. He spoke about three kinds of openness that have dominated India; the first being internal openness where despite cultural diversity the inclusive and overarching nature of Indian identity remains intact. The openness in introducing dialogue to settle disputes through discussions is unique to Indian history. The fact that the first printed work in the world, which came from China was an Indian text, illustrated the interactive openness of India, Amartya Sen said.

Given this rich historical past, he warned against cultivating a "frog in the well" attitude and made a strong case for valuing, defending and fighting for the spirit of openness in which Indian civilisation blossomed.

Amartya Sen's speech was followed by a plenary session with Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi. The comparison between the two approaches to understanding science in India was stark, with Joshi portraying his characteristic right-wing chauvinism and emphasising the "golden ages".

Beyond Belief

If Joshi's interactive question-and-answer session went without major embarrassments in relation to the BJP's saffronisation agenda, the same could not be said about Advani and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who were cornered by delegates who wanted them to clarify their stand on the violence in Gujarat. At the end of Advani's speech, a vociferous Nadira Naipaul, wife of V.S. Naipaul, demanded that the Minister clarify his stand on the safety of secularists and minorities in the country. Caught on the defensive, Advani said that the Gujarat violence was "an aberration" about which "we are all sad and ashamed". There would be no discrimination against any citizen on the ground of faith or religion, Advani said. But it was obvious that his words failed to assuage sentiments because the very next day Modi was asked by Debasmita Patnaik, an Odissi dancer based in France, what he was doing for the minorities who had been at the receiving end of the communal riots. There was a stunned silence in the hall as Modi's Ministers gesticulated to their aides to stop such questions. She said: "We cannot hold our heads high any more in Europe for what happened in Gujarat last year. And here we have him (pointing towards Modi) and he does not even apologise."

This was not the only occasion when the question of protection of the minorities in India came up. In the first plenary session, Devesh Kapur, an Associate Professor at the Department of Government, Harvard University, pointed out that NRIs' right to security in their country of residence would be weakened if the minorities were not protected in India. According to Devesh Kapur, the presence in Gujarat of NRIs based in the U.K. during the communal violence has made the riots an external problem.

The conference was dominated by delegates from Western countries such as the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, and a feeling of discrimination prevailed among delegates from the Carribean, African, South-East Asian and Scandinavian countries. The most direct and high-profile criticism of the diaspora meet came from former Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Choudhry, whose overthrow in a coup two years ago focussed international attention on the tiny Pacific Ocean island. Choudhury expressed resentment over the lack of serious concern about PIOs who were suffering from human rights violations. He said: "The people of Indian origin who are now in Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji and Trinidad are in circumstances that are different from those of the affluent lot in the West. We must stress not only on these affluent sections but others whose rights are being assaulted." According to Devesh Kapur, when it came to social, cultural and civil rights the diaspora felt left out. "Take a small instance. You can be a law graduate from any State in India and practise law in India but if you have a degree from the Harvard Law School then you cannot practise law. Such bottlenecks need to be removed for effective interaction between the diaspora and their mother country," he said.

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