Discovering the diaspora

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

A section of the delegates at the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi in January this year. -

A section of the delegates at the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi in January this year. -

India's rediscovery of its diaspora is a welcome process, as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas demonstrated.

THE three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas extravaganza in New Delhi early in January was the first official gathering of the "global Indian family". It demonstrated the diverse nature of the Indian diaspora, and the distinct concerns and varying expectations that overseas Indians have of India. A variety of opinions were aired at the discussions, which covered areas such as culture, language, literature, entertainment, ethnic media, hospitality and tourism, science and technology, knowledge-based industries, health care and education.

The conference threw up several fundamental questions, the most basic one being about the use of the term "diaspora". The South African freedom fighter Fatima Meer, who was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, said that she "abhorred" the term diaspora because of its association with Zionism. The term diaspora is of Greek origin, and means dispersal; it originally referred to the Jews who were exiled from their homeland in ancient times. It acquired political connotations because of the modern Israeli nation-building project and its impact on Palestinians. In recent times, the term has been used as journalistic shorthand to denote any sizable community living outside its original home, be it Greeks, Armenians or the Chinese. The Economist, in a recent special report, described diaspora as "a community of people living outside their country of origin". The 1990s saw an increased interest in the subject, particularly in the field of cultural studies, with centres for diasporic studies coming up in several universities. Although it may raise the hackles of purists, the new usage of the term has come to stay.

In the 1990s, the overseas community emerged as an acceptable ethnic identity around the world, be it the well-mobilised Chinese overseas community or the Jewish one. More and more countries are trying to reach out to their prosperous emigrants for a variety of reasons that may include leveraging influence, enhancing an international presence, and providing access or prospective foreign investment. According to one estimate, emigres of one kind or the other remit about $100 billion each year to their homes in the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, El Salvador and so on.

Ghana held its own version of a global family homecoming summit in 2001 to woo its diaspora. Greeks are a substantial minority in Melbourne, Australia. Montreal (Canada) has the highest concentration of Italians living outside Italy.

Some overseas communities have also dabbled in politics. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai was a non-resident Afghan. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had a spate of expatriates returning home in the 1990s to occupy important positions. Exiled Croats played a big role in getting international recognition for independent Croatia. Syria has a separate Ministry to look after diaspora affairs.

INDIA is a late entrant in the diasporic search because it required a major change in its outlook. At the time of Independence, the government had to take a careful look at the status of Indians living abroad, be it in Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malaya (Malaysia) or East Africa. The advice officially proffered to Indians living abroad was to give their "loyalties" to their countries of adoption. Any idea of dual citizenship was ruled out. The first priority was to gain acceptance in their adopted countries as Independence cut India's connections with other British colonies. As countries in East Africa and the Caribbean became independent with the de-colonisation process, Indians had to be seen as integral parts of their adopted homes.

In the last decade, the Indian overseas community became more visible internationally because of the large number of first-generation migrants among them, some of whom have scaled heights of achievement and found a place among international leaders in their areas of expertise. The rise of a prosperous, confident and demanding overseas Indian community in the United States and the United Kingdom since the late 1980s, brought a change in the Indian government's attitude towards the pravasi community. Indians in the U.S. began to gain in influence once they became politically active and came to be wooed as potential donors by American politicians. At the same time, well-to-do Indians were lavish in their hospitality to visiting Indian politicians of all hues, and even became contributors to all manner of causes in India, both charitable and political. The remittances from expatriate Indians in the Gulf countries became an important factor in boosting the country's foreign exchange reserves.

Though India looks up to overseas Indians for foreign investment, that cannot be the main reason for engaging the pravasi community. The diaspora gives India a wide reach in the international arena, through engagement with a wide range of countries. India has a natural link with people of Indian origin and their strong desire to remain connected with their Indian heritage.

The overseas Indian community can be divided broadly into two categories. The larger category is constituted by the older diaspora, that is, second, third or even fourth generation descendants of Indians settled abroad. The second category comprises mainly first-generation migrants, who live in the developed economies and still maintain close connections with their homeland.

The preponderance of what one participant called the dollar diaspora at the conference led to an impression that the government was keener to woo them. This was more in evidence after the demand for dual citizenship was approved. V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, remarked that the conference had the look of an investment mela. He was not the only one to voice such a view; delegates from Malaysia and South Africa spoke of the disregard for their sensibilities and sensitivities. It exposed the sharp differences between two segments of the diaspora, which one delegate described as that between "the graduates of Silicon Valley and those of us who have graduated from indentured labour".

Delegates from South Africa expressed disquiet at the overemphasis on the strength of the diaspora and its ties with India. South African Member of Parliament Mewa Ramgoobin, who is also Chairman of the Phoenix Trust started by Mahatma Gandhi, felt that dual citizenship was not a good idea. At a meeting of parliamentarians of Indian origin, he stressed that he was a South African with cultural ties with India. It would be disastrous, he said, if black South Africans were to get the feeling that Indian-origin South Africans preferred their ancestral homeland to the country they were citizens of. South Africa is still in the arduous process of integrating its post-apartheid multi-racial society, and questions of national identity have acquired sensitive overtones there. Racial identity is an important factor in the politics of multi-ethnic societies, whether it is in Trinidad, Uganda, South Africa or Fiji, and giving prominence to one's Indian connection can become a cause for concern to other ethnic groups.

The "dollar" diaspora tends to dominate because of the influence of its members in their adopted lands and their access to capital for investment. These migrants are ambitious people, driven by a need to succeed, but their success often carries a trace of guilt for having left their motherland.

The Indian passport keeps alive the notion of returning home some day. This underlying emotion makes it difficult to give up the Indian passport, which means the final severing of links with home. It is the dilemma of first-generation migrants, but not of their children who are products of the societies they live in and who do not face these troubled emotions. The non-resident Indian (NRI) has not always been an attractive figure within India. In earlier days, an NRI was seen as an ingrate who left the country after receiving a subsidised higher education. Later, liberalised immigration regulations and the information technology boom resulted in most middle-class families in India having a friend or relative abroad. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha was acknowledging the new reality when he said: "India has shed whatever ambivalence it might have had towards its diaspora."

THERE is a view that unlike the Chinese diaspora, the Indian diaspora does not invest in India. But the comparison with China is a simplistic one, since overseas Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore are mainly businessmen who were in a position to invest in mainland China. Overseas Indians are mainly professionals and hence their investment has been in portfolio management. However, the presence of a large overseas Indian community opens up new markets for Indian goods. Indian exports to the huge Gulf market are primarily on account of the NRI population in the region. Indian communities in East African countries have provided the means to access the African market. State governments in India have also tried to attract foreign investments. Investment is a decision dependent on the kind of facilities available, rather than on sentiment.

The delegates spoke of their desire to set up schools and hospitals in India, and criticised the red tape and bureaucratic hurdles they had faced. They spoke of the insecurity of their investments and assets in India because of fraud and cheating. Others wanted help in teaching Indian languages, music and dance in small, spread-out communities abroad, and in getting translations of literary works in Indian languages. There were also suggestions on how to promote empathy among the diaspora and reduce differences between migrants from India and secondary migrants from countries such as Kenya and Trinidad to developed countries. The issues of assimilation and integration in their adopted lands, while keeping cultural values alive, were also discussed.

However, the reaction of some delegates to the communal carnage in Gujarat exposed the streak of intolerance that remains even at a distance. Air travel, rapid communication and the Internet have brought the diasporas closer to their homelands. The younger people, who have not cut off their ties with their homes, have a greater interest in Indian politics. While absence makes the heart beat more fiercely, it also breeds what Prof. Bhiku Parekh of the London School of Economics and Political Science called "long distance nationalism". According to him, this kind of patriotism can be dangerous, for diasporas can also have their own personal agendas that are not in the nation's interest. India has had an experience of this phenomenon in the Khalistani movement.

Donations from the diaspora have been a major source of sustenance for secessionist movements such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Similar patterns have been observed in Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as in Cyprus. There is a view that Israel would have long come to a settlement with the Palestinians, had it not been for the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Other countries have also found that the diaspora tends to be more nationalistic than people who would face the consequences of this strident nationalism back home. The Internet has provided many NRIs the means to express strongly jingoistic views that range from extreme statements to ridiculous claims - from advocating nuking Pakistan, decimating India's enemies, over-running Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and banning cow slaughter. It has allowed a small group of aggressive NRIs to acquire an exaggerated opinion of their importance as overseas Indians.

India's rediscovery of its diaspora is a process that requires the formulation of a plan of action that involves all groups of overseas Indians. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced the setting up of an advisory council on pravasi affairs, which could be a forum in India with representatives of the government, public figures and representatives of overseas Indians, who could meet regularly to explore issues of common concern. It would work to sensitise opinion among the overseas community on delicate political and cultural issues, educate them on what are legitimate expectations and what are extravagant, even illogical, hopes. India needs a multi-layered diaspora policy to cater to all groups of overseas Indians in order to help build an emotional bond that provides a single strand linking people of Indian origin around the world.

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