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Passage ... back to India?

Twenty million strong and perhaps more widespread and heterogeneous than any other, the Indian diaspora is a force to reckon with, as reflected in the belated, and official, attempts to reach out to its members this year with the observance of `Pravasi Bharatiya Divas' on January 9. RAJESH VETCHA and T.L.S. BHASKAR examine the contentious issues that affect the sense of belonging.


Praful Patel, 58, owner of a grocery store in East London, last came to India in 1974. When asked why, he recollects his harrowing experience in an airport where he was detained for nearly 12 hours for bringing in a TV. Despite his agreeing to pay the customs duty, he was not allowed to go because he refused to bribe customs officials.

* * *

Ramesh Tanna, 58, a businessman in Central London, (living there for 28 years) has been visiting India on and off but has never been able to think of it as his motherland. The reason — when his family was one of the many expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the early 1970s, his father decided to return to India, only to be faced with hostile conditions, from the time they landed, with customs and other tax authorities, banks and educational institutions (his 12th grade was not recognised and he was asked to repeat the same class in India). Within a few months, they left for England and settled down there.

THESE are just two incidents, which show how members of the diaspora have not been able to engage themselves with their motherland. The reasons may be simple but thanks to our bureaucracy they are not only haunting and hurting but also leave a lasting impression on them to dissuade them from doing so. The Indian diaspora, which is 20 million strong and spread across 110 countries, is perhaps the most widespread and heterogeneous than any other, with its half a dozen religions and sub-ethnic identities.

With globalisation and the proliferation of the internet, the achievements of Indians abroad, especially in the Information Technology sector, have made the government take notice of the importance of the diaspora and to evolve policies and methods to engage them in similar ways like that of other countries.

It was in August 2000 that the Government appointed a high level committee, headed by L.M. Singhvi (former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom), to review the status of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO encompasses people whose ancestors have originated from India or once held Indian passports and NRIs — Non-Resident Indians — Indians living abroad and who still hold Indian passports), study the characteristics, aspirations and their expectations from India and recommend a flexible policy framework and country specific plans for forging a mutually beneficial relationship with the region or PIOs and NRIs.

The committee submitted its report in December 2001. The 570-page document, perhaps the first of its kind in independent India, has made recommendations ranging from issues concerning improvements/facilities at Indian airports, establishing Indian cultural centres and identifying suitable mechanisms to leverage the resources and expertise of the diaspora.

One among the many recommendations is that the constructive role played by the diaspora, its achievements and goodwill towards India should be celebrated and recognised appropriately. So the committee recommended the observance of January 9 (the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1910) as "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas". Apart from honouring members of the diaspora, lectures, seminars and business meetings were held to try and engage the diaspora in a symbiotic relationship.

The term "Diaspora" is derived from the Greek word "dia" (through) and "speiro" (to scatter). The literal meaning of "Diaspora" is "scattering or dispersion". It was first used in the context of the experience of the Jews in exile after Nebuchadnezzer's Babylonian conquests in 597 B.C. and 587 B.C. who were scattered "in-exile" all over because of the absence of a homeland. Of late, "diaspora" has come to be used more or less loosely as an inclusive term for all kinds of minorities who can trace their country or region to one other than that in which they reside.

Diasporas can be classified into different types such as victim, trade, cultural, imperial and labour/service. Perhaps, the Indian diaspora is the only one that fits into all the analytic sub-types. With globalisation, the language of diaspora is used frequently in world politics. While the developed countries continuously formulate policies to check immigration and use the diaspora as complementary to the locals, the sending country (the Third World and developing countries) began to develop a framework on how best the diaspora can be utilised for its socio-economic development.

In the Indian context, emigration has been a continuous process since pre-colonial times when it was for the purposes of trade and the propagation of religion. During the colonial period, emigration to the British, French and Dutch colonies was by way of indentured labour to Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam and Myanmar (Burma). By the end of the 19th Century, the number of emigrants who left India was nearly 1.6 million.

Post-independence, the first set of professional migrants went mainly to the United States and the U.K. followed by the labour emigration to West Asia in the 1970s, and then by the most prominent and ongoing — that of software engineers and other professionals. While the emigrants of the colonial period have lost touch with most relatives back home, the last wave of professional migrants are not only mobile but also keep in touch, scouting for business opportunities back home.



Daily chores... in London.

The adaptable nature of the Indian diaspora and their initiative to play a significant role in the country of origin have made them a force to reckon with for both the host country and the country of origin. Second and third generation members of the Indian diaspora hold prominent positions in economic, political and other spheres.

Though the government, till the appointment of the high level committee, has never made any formal attempt to engage the Indian diaspora, the diaspora, both pre-independence and post-independence, have nurtured links with their homeland through culture. However, it has been economic achievements more than anything, which has made the Indian diaspora a force to reckon with worldwide. From the experience of the other diasporas such as Israel and China, a national consensus has evolved that investment by NRIs and PIOs is desirable.

The Chinese experience of building business networks and connections amongst the overseas Chinese has helped build huge businesses all over the world. The government set up special economic zones and gave preferential treatment for overseas Chinese to invest in their homeland, also setting up special cells to handle issues ranging from issues of citizenship to the setting up of industries. By the end of 2001, overseas Chinese invested nearly $300 billion in China.

Perhaps the first experiment among the Indian diaspora was the setting up of "The Indus Entrepreneurs" (TIE) in the Silicon Valley for incubating Indian tech companies, which to an extent, has been successful. The government should help repeat the same in areas such as pharma, biotechnology and the automobile and textile sectors.

In the area of investment banking, the success of the Resurgent India Bonds (RIBs) should make the government issue similar bonds in the area of infrastructure development, which is highly capital intensive. India should take the help of the huge banking community and investment bankers abroad to improve the investment climate in India, as in the case of the Jewish diaspora.

The government should realise that among the Indian diaspora, there are different economic strata too and has to engage its members. An example is that of the migrant labour in West Asia facing problems ranging from poor living conditions and cheating by middlemen to deduction of work permit fees from meagre salaries. There are more than half a million Indians suffering on account of the above. The government should also take the lead in finalising a standard agreement with West Asian governments, as in the case of the Philippines, to prevent this. It needs to take innovative steps such as providing insurance cover during unemployment and the premature termination of work contracts.

Another area of co-operation is tourism. The promotion of India as a tourist destination in the form of heritage and pilgrimage tours and tailor-made packages for diaspora to discover their roots, as in the case of Ireland and China, can be introduced. Apart from members of the diaspora investing back home, the government should help Indian industry set up base in countries where there is a significant Indian diaspora. An example is that of Guyana, Surinam and Trinidad being used by Indian companies to do business in the Americas and in Mauritius and the Reunion Islands for business in Africa.

The next important factor after economic reasons is that of culture and religion. As the diaspora has members from all religions, it is also one reason which has preserved the identity of Indians abroad — evident in a Ganga Talab in Mauritius and a Diwali Nagar in Trinidad. Colonial emigrants who cannot afford to come to India, still think thatsalvation is achieved if their ashes are immersed in the Ganga. For NRI Hindus, cremation is a problem. There have been instances when bodies have had to be flown to other countries for last rites (from Senegal to Kenya or Nigeria). Indian embassies, with the help of courier companies, can arrange for the immersion of ashes and can have priests in certain countries who can be flown in to conduct rituals as in the case of Jewish Rabbis who are attached to the Israeli embassies.



Difficult times during the turmoil in East Africa.

Among the many aspirations of Indians abroad, some include providing teachers to teach Hindi, Indian dance and music. They have suggested the setting up of a Pravasi Bharatiya Bhavan on the lines of the Alliance Francaise and the British Council wherever there is a sizable Indian population. Indian films, food, dress and jewellery continue to be high on the list of priorities of the diaspora. The Indian diaspora have retained their culture on the one hand and assimilated well with the local cultures on the other. Examples of this are evident in fusion music, movies and a new genre of writers.

The government should emulate the Thai example where the government there arranged for the setting up of a chain of Thai restaurants worldwide and training unemployed Thai diaspora for jobs in these establishments.

Another contentious issue on which the government needs to firm up its stand is that of dual citizenship, a persistent demand especially from North America, Europe and Australia. Many PIOs have relinquished their Indian citizenship for practical convenience and the pressure of circumstances in the local country.

Most of the diaspora feel that dual citizenship will eliminate problems for travel to and from India; they will promote investment in business and trade. Most PIOs feel that sentimental and psychological considerations do foster a sense of belonging to the motherland by granting them dual citizenship. This will also help the second and third generation perpetuate links with India.

Investment from the diaspora may drop over the years because those who have taken up citizenship gradually settle down in the host country and hence have to save for retirement and their children. Dual citizenship experience of other countries has clearly shown that it helps retain interest in the motherland. It is important that the government takes a quick decision.

Another important aspect of the diaspora is their political participation in the host countries — a coming of age and holding the key to success for power in Uganda, the U.K., Fiji, Guyana, Surinam and Trinidad. In the U.K., in more than 70 constituencies, the Indian vote is important for the victory of a candidate.

India can take pride in the fact that diaspora members have been elected to the state and national assemblies in Canada, the U.S., Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Mauritius, Reunion, New Zealand, Fiji, Singapore, Malaysia, the U.K. and other European countries. The government should ask them to help promote the cause of India be it on the Kashmir issue or for any other economic concessions. It should appoint members of the diaspora to the Rajya Sabha for short terms who would be able to represent the cause of the diaspora.

The diaspora has grown by leaps and bounds in making its mark in the areas of health, science and technology and education. The roll call of honour of the diaspora is long and impressive. The government should form networks of these professionals (as in the case of China and Japan) and involve them in developmental measures.

The government should facilitate an exchange of scholars to provide cross-cultural exposure to Indian and diaspora teachers, students and professionals, which will help broaden the view and perspective of both. Concerted efforts should be made to introduce Indian studies wherever there is a significant Indian population. Currently, the Indian public is unacquainted with the Indian diaspora and their issues. Unfortunately, they only get to know the success stories from the media.

The government should make diaspora study a part of the curriculum. It might seem that engaging the Indian diaspora might be a gargantuan task but the challenge ahead for the Indian Government and other institutions is to engage them so as to forge ahead in a symbiotic relationship. Many of the aspirations of the diaspora are legitimate and simple which in the normal course in other countries is part of the system such as good facilities at airports or welfare measures for migrant labour.

The "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas" celebration is a right step in engaging the Indian diaspora. With Indians from more than 55 countries having participated, it shows the vast and diverse links of India with its diaspora. To sum up, the contribution of the Indian diaspora is best revealed by the Mauritian poet, Vishwamitra Ganga Ashutosh:

No gold did they find,
Underneath any stone
They touched and turned
Yet
Every stone they touched
Into solid gold they turned.

Timeline of Indian emigration

from the colonial period:

1600 Arrival of the British East India Company

1658 Custom duties on Indian Calicoes (on Indian cotton in 1677, and on Indian silk in 1696)

1716 Absolute prohibition (import and consumption) of Indian silk

1765 Grant of Diwanee of Bengal to Company (increase in land taxes under various systems)

1770 Great Famine in Bengal begins

1834 Slavery banned as an institution on the Empire

1838 Slavery banned as a practice on the Empire

1839 Emigration to Mauritius

1839 Indian Act of XIV of 1839 and Emigration to Ceylon

1843 Act XXI establishing a Protector of Emigrants at Calcutta

1845 Act XXV of 1845 and emigration to Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guiana

1849 Emancipation of Slavery by the French National Assembly

1851 Emigration to Reunion Islands

1855 Act XXXI of 1855 and emigration to St. Lucia and Grenada

1860 Act XXXIII of 1860 and Emigration to Natal

1871 Royal Commission on Emigration

1872 Emigration to Surinam

1873 J. Geoghegan's Famous Report — Note on Emigration from India

1876 Labour Act of 1876 and emigration to Burma

1879 Emigration to Fiji

1883 Indian Emigration Act

1890 East Indian/Hindoo presence in America

1917 Recruitment under Indenture System stopped (March)

1920 Indenture System abolished

1922 Indian Emigration Act and Standing Emigration Committee controlling unskilled emigration

1924 Johnson-Reed Act (U.S.) enacting

Quota System

1965 Hart-Celler Act (U.S.) abolishing Quota System — Migration of Indians to the U.S. and West on a largescale

1990 Immigration Act emphasising the professional quotas

Rajesh Vetcha is a credit analyst with an interest in migration and diaspora.

T.L.S. Bhaskar is pursuing his doctorate on Telugu Diaspora at the Centre for the Study of Indian Diaspora, University of Hyderabad.

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