Highway to Harmony, Peace and Progress: The Role of Indian Diaspora

Special Report

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, known for his humanism, and for bringing people of the Third World under the banner of Non-Alignment, was caught up in the quicksand of legality when it came to the question of PIOs

Indian diaspora is part of the historical migration of people from their homeland to a foreign country in a new environment and culture. Quite often, scholars tend to freely interchange expressions ‘diaspora’ with that of ‘dispersion’. Historically, the Jewish, Armenian, Greek and Romanian diaspora had fascinated historians, anthropologists, sociologists and cultural thinkers to evolve a pattern of defining and understanding diaspora. Until the 1980s, diasporic studies did not fascinate scholars to undertake serious research on the subject. In 2005, the UCLA Sociologist Rogers Brubaker, in his observations on the study of diaspora, mentions that the word ‘diaspora’ appeared as a keyword only once or twice a year in PhD dissertations abstracts in the 1970s, perhaps 13 times in the 1980s, and peaked to 130 times in 2001.

In the Indian context, studies on Indian diaspora did not sink deep until the Indian Government took some initiatives after receiving repeated requests from the People of Indian Origin (PIO) abroad. The members of parliament and some of the thoughtful Union Ministers like Eduardo Faleiro, impressed upon the Government on the need to look to the plight of the PIOs. As one of the great Caribbean writers, Sam Selvon, in unmistakable expression exemplified the predicament of PIOs, by raising the question ‘Who are we?’ to which he made a feeble attempt to answer - not sure of who he was - and in a whisper he asked to himself whether he is an Indian, Trinidadian, or a Canadian. This is true of most of the PIOs who migrated to Africa and the Americas, to Europe and to the Far East. Chinese diaspora, which lately has caught the attention and imagination of our scholars, did not become a soft power in influencing the foreign policy as compared to that of India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, known for his humanism, and for bringing people of the Third World under the banner of Non-Alignment, was caught up in the quicksand of legality when it came to the question of PIOs. As the Prime Minister of India, Nehru took a position that Indians who chose to remain abroad would consider themselves as citizens or nationals of their respective host lands. Indira Gandhi, who followed the footsteps of her father in many ways, reemphasised the earlier position taken by her predecessors. The ethnic problem of Tamils in Sri Lanka and Fiji hit the shores of Southern Peninsula along with the seasonal cyclones that visited the Eastern Coast of India, with the Indian Government resorting to negotiation and conciliation until Rajiv Gandhi took over as the prime minister. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi took some bold but unpopular steps, both in the Fijian crisis and in sending troops to Sri Lanka. But that was a good gesture to show that we care for our people abroad, despite legal entanglements.

The NDA Government led by the BJP should, in fact, be credited for leveraging Indian diaspora not only for socio-cultural connections, but also for the country’s economic growth. P V Narsimha Rao’s dream of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’- the whole world is one family - was realised by his good friend, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The BJP news report of December 28 and 29, 1999, had categorically opined that the ‘vast community of NRIs and PIOs constituted a part of the Great Indian Family’ and affirmed that they should endeavour to ‘continuously strengthen their social, cultural, economic and emotional ties with the mother country.’

Over the years, the 26 million strong Indian community abroad not only got assimilated to the social and economic sectors of society of the host country, but like Chinese, retained their indigenous culture and connection with the mother country. The Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, held every year on January 7- 9, provided a very useful platform for interacting with various PIOs from 128 countries who flock to various destinations in India, from Kerala to Delhi and now to Gujarat. This being the 100th year of Gandhiji’s return to India from South Africa, the first pravasi to come back to his motherland to fight for the freedom of his countrymen, settled in Ahmednagar in Gujarat, and started his noble work. The Gujaratis, by nature, has been a very enterprising community overseas, and retained much of the Indian culture in its pristine form. They contributed not only to the freedom movement of India, but also joined with other overseas Indians to lobby for India’s freedom and later for India’s economic growth and activity.

In recent years, we find many influential NRIs and PIOs coming back to India to invest in the country in a big way, which bolsters our rapid economic growth. They are attracted by the ‘bait’ of Indian culture and the liberalisation policy of the RBI and the Government of India. In the fields of tertiary health care, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, automobiles and civil aviation, and more recently, in the fields of IT and communications, the venture capital from PIOs and NRIs is being stepped-up.

The Indian diaspora had contributed in the domain of foreign policy as well. The Indo-US nuclear deal, attracting FDI in large measures, disengaging US-Pakistan entanglements after 26/11, and bolstering foreign remittances, particularly from the Gulf region - which enabled us to tide over the global recession only a few years ago - are all testimonies to the economic, political, cultural and social contribution of the PIOs and NRIs.

The 13th Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, organised by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, from January 7- 9, 2015, at Mahatma Mandir, Gandhinagar, would discuss smart cities and urban planning, skill and tourism development, India’s role as a soft power in global engagements, and on Francophone diaspora. What this conference seems to miss is an adequate concentration in the field of educational cooperation among the countries having an Indian diasporic presence. This is the need of the hour. Mere rhetoric and promises on a platter would not suffice. In this year, when the Government has chosen to honour the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Bharat Ratna, it should also make adequate efforts and endeavour to build bridges and adorn the crown of Indian diaspora with the great ideas and vision of Atalji.

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Prof V Shivkumar
Prof V Shivkumar is currently Visiting Professor and Academic Coordinator at the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Institute for South Asia Regional Cooperation at Pondicherry Central University.

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