The term “diaspora” originally used for Jews living outside Israel, has come to be used for people who have spread or have been dispersed from their homeland (native country). The term in Indian context is used to describe Indian nationals and citizens living abroad for work or business.
Diaspora serves as an important phenomenon for non-state actors, soft powers in foreign policy analysis, and an ‘inevitable link’ between the home and host lands for the people. For instance, in the economic sphere, the Chinese diaspora has been a propelling force for its emergence as an economic superpower due to their significant contribution to FDI. In the political sphere, the Jewish diaspora has a strong grip over the US and the European Union in terms of shaping their strategic relationship with Israel.
The migration in the post-colonial period was entirely different when compared with the earlier forms of migration in the ancient-medieval and the colonial phases. Here, the migrants are mostly from the middle-class, with instruction in English, and were skilled. The educational system in the post Independent India was patterned after the British and American educational systems. The system produced professionals who outnumbered the availability of jobs that can absorb them. The migration was mainly to the developed nations of the West the U.S., the U.K., and some in the Europe and Australia.
In the last few decades, a considerable number of professional, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, as well as students from India have shifted abroad. According to the United Nations, this diaspora, which totals to more than 31 million people, is the world’s largest such community spread in 136 countries across the globe. This group, in last few years, has come to acquire a significant place in India’s foreign policy. Let’s try and understand the evolution of India’s diaspora policy.
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, pursued a policy of ‘active dissociation’ from the Indian diaspora. He was concerned about the impact of connecting with and advocating for this diaspora on the sovereignty of host countries. Nehru’s policy left a bitter taste for generations among Indian-origin communities abroad.
His cold view of overseas Indians was encapsulated in a comment made in India’s Parliament in 1957: if they adopt the nationality of that country, we have no concern with them. Sentimental concern there is, but politically they cease to be Indian nationals: The implication of Nehru’s views was that the diaspora could not expect India to fight for their rights and therefore, India’s foreign policy was accordingly structured as a model of non-interference whenever the emigrant Indians got into trouble in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc.
However, Lal Bahadur Shastri entered into an agreement with Sirimavo Bandaranaike to resolve the question of Tamils in Sri Lanka and made a beginning. Otherwise, the Nehruvian trend was continued and extended till 1980 by successive governments.
New Era for Diaspora Policy
Indian community globally was considered as ‘one’ only on national days or other important occasions. It was under the regime of Rajiv Gandhi that there was a boost in the diaspora policy. He offered support at Fiji Indian crisis in 1986. Besides, having realized Indian diaspora as a strategic asset, he invited talents like Sam Pitroda to participate in nation-building and took administrative measures to establish the Indian Overseas department in 1984.
The policy of reaching out to the Indian diaspora began in earnest during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was under NDA-I that Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was first launched in 2003 to be celebrated on 9th of January which marks the day when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. The government decided to celebrate it annually by holding events including bestowing awards on the prominent members of the Indian diaspora.
Significance and Contribution
1) Overseas communities constitute a significant resource for the development of the countries of origin. It serves as an important ‘bridge’ to access knowledge, expertise, resources and markets for the development of the country of origin with the rest of the world.
2) Indian diaspora is an important part of India’s “soft diplomacy”, which sometimes proves to be more effective in creating news paths for the country of origin. For example, Indian diaspora played a critical in the fructification of Indo-US Nuclear deal.
3) They have also contributed to the growth and development of the country of their residence. For example, Silicon Valley represents the success of Indians. 4 out of 10 startups in the region are Indian. About one-third of the engineers in Silicon Valley are of Indian descent, while 7 per cent of the Valley’s high-tech firms are led by Indian CEOs.
4) The Indian Diaspora has played an important role in the field of Science & Technology. Indian emigration thus increasingly consisted, among others, of highly qualified scientists, engineers and other professionals, also termed as the Brain Drain.
5) Of late, it has emerged as a significant source of trade and investment in India.
6) Apart from the above, it is the source of large inflows of remittances, which has been helping balance the current account. According to the World Bank Indian diaspora is going to be the largest earner of remittances in the world in next few years.
An Era of Importance
Narendra Modi, after assuming the office of Prime Minister in 2014, has brought the linkage between Indian diasporic community and development of the country. Since then, diaspora has become an important feature of Indian foreign policy, which is now centered on strengthening the role and significance of Indian diasporic community in the development of the country, in addition to attracting global investment, aid and technology.
This change in Indian diaspora policy is reflected in special outreach to Indian communities during Prime Minister’s visits to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Moreover, the government has made a conscious effort to reconnect the Indians living abroad lo their homeland by simplifying visa regulations and merging the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Card into a single identity card to secure lifelong Indian visas, avoid checks at local police stations during visits, and started a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs among many other initiatives.
This diaspora policy not only focuses on the rich, industrialists, white collared professionals but gives due respect to the working-class population. It is evident from the PM’s visit to Indian workers’ camp in Abu Dhabi, establishing the Indian Community Welfare Fund (1CWF), and announcing an online platform ‘MADAD’ to. assist them. In 2015, the Indian government launched Operation Raahat to evacuate Indian citizens when war broke out in Yemen. Recently, the Union Cabinet has also approved proxy voting for non-resident Indians.
The diaspora has not only contributed through FDI, remittances and transfer of knowledge and entrepreneurial means but also through the rise of the services sector in India, especially in the IT and ITES sectors. India retained the top spot among world’s largest remittance recipient country in 2018 getting $ 80 billion. FDI inflows increased from $36 billion in 2013-14 to $60 billion in 2016-17.
Most importantly, the Indian diaspora is also active in local politics in countries like the U.K. and Canada. The government has also urged diaspora members to invest in social projects such as improving rural sanitation and visiting India every year to boost tourism. However, the importance of Diasporas does not end with remittances alone, but extends to knowledge transfer, the sharing of resources, acting as unofficial Indian ambassadors, and pushing for India’s interests abroad.
Diaspora and Indian interests
The role of diaspora in shaping and furthering India’s foreign policy goals is unclear. The most successful role the diaspora played was in ensuring the passage of the India-US Nuclear Deal in 2008. Nevertheless, as more people of Indian origin take up larger roles in politics, business and entertainment abroad, they will be more likely to not only invest in India but also help further India’s interests.
Two good examples are Antonio Costa, the Portuguese Prime Minister, and Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister. Both belong to the Indian diaspora, and come from two economically strong countries that can trade with India. Portugal has already signed MOUs with India in science and technology, double taxation avoidance, space, trade and investment.
Further, India and Portugal have agreed to create a joint science fund of four million Euros where they will collaborate in science research projects. As for Ireland and other countries like the Netherlands with a large Indian diaspora, they are more likely to support India in her bid to join the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This will be even more likely with enough pressure from the diaspora.
India can also benefit from the diaspora in North America in achieving her space, defense and security goals. Groups like the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), Friends of India, Canada India Foundation (CIF) and Canada India Business Council (CIBC), are already actively pushing for India’s
It is held that despite India pursuing stronger ties with Israel, it enjoys a favorable relationship with the Saudi Arabia, perhaps to an extent due to the presence of the diaspora.
Smaller but equally important way in which the Indian community abroad helps further India’s foreign policy goals, is by helping in the return of stolen artefacts. The Indian Pride Project for example successfully lobbied to bring back the famous Nataraja from Australia, and sandstone Yakshi from the United States.
However, some gaps remain in India’s diaspora policy. These are irregularity of diaspora conferences, employer-employee mode of India-Gulf relations, hurdles to diaspora investment and poor efforts to bring about brain gain.
The support of the diaspora is neither automatic nor continuous. They have been critical of bureaucratic procedures in India among other issues.
Though, the government has launched many a reforms and policies towards Indian diaspora. But still there is a need for certain improvements. In this regard following may be recommended:
1) To ensure that Diaspora members feel welcomed on their arrival in India and also recall warmly their visits, a friendlier reception at their point of entry; easier procedures for immigration and customs clearances that are marked by courteous service are essential.
2) To address the problems of our overseas blue-collar workers, following should be implemented at the earliest possible. These are:
3) The Diaspora can make a significant contribution to the growth of tourism in India. PIOs make frequent visits to their home state or to visit their relatives. There should be greater focus on promoting tourism among 2nd generation PIOs.
4) There is the need to further liberalize the economy for oversees Indian community.
5) A Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Indian Diaspora could be constituted. It should have in it, members with an interest in Diaspora affairs. This Committee could also act as a focal point for interaction with Parliamentarians of Indian Origin in other countries. Such exchanges are essential in order to bring about greater understanding and amity between them.
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