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Last Updated Monday November 20 2017 10:38 PM IST

Of India and her children abroad

T.P. Sreenivasan
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Narendra Modi PM Modi interacts with school girls after a traditional welcome at Albert Square in Fiji during his visit to the country in 2014. PTI

The sun never sets on the Indian diaspora today. As the day breaks on Taveuni islands in Fiji, the place where the dawn comes first in the world, the Indian farmers there go to work in the cane farms. At that very moment, the Indian computer engineers in San jose will be returning home from work in their swanky Mercedez cars. Today in California is tomorrow in Fiji.

The lifestyle of the diaspora too is varied, ranging from the poor paddy cultivators in Myanmar to the billionaires in the United States. Some migrated nearly 200 years ago to escape from poverty and squalor in search of a promised land. Others went as professionals in search of opportunities for education and research. Teachers, doctors and nurses filled the needs of many developed societies. The IT revolution in the west and the oil boom in the Gulf attracted workers from India. Indian traders in Africa have been there for years. Thus, the diaspora is a mix, a microcosm of our country, but it reflects the India of different times and stages of development. Their attitudes to India depends on when they went, from where they went and what fortunes they encountered abroad. In a sense, migration to Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean was forced, while the migration to the US, the UK and other European countries was voluntary.

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Diverse as the diaspora is, there is one thing in common with all of them. We can take Indians out of India, but we cannot take India out of them. Whether they went 100 years ago or just recently, India lives in them through their Indian way of life, culture and religion. They are nostalgic about their Indian roots even if they never come back for various reasons. They yearn for Mother India, they preserve their customs even if those customs have undergone changes in India itself and they cling to their languages. As a result, the Indian diaspora never merges completely with the populations of the countries of their adoption.

After 200 years, the Fiji citizens of Indian origin still call themselves Fiji Indians, while their Polynesian and Melanesian counterparts call themselves Fijians. But the diaspora has accomplished something that we, the Indians in India, have not been able to do, which is to integrate fully among themselves. Indian migrants lost their sectarian identities in the melting pot of suffering. In Fiji, Guyana and South Africa, castes and linguistic differences among them have completely disappeared. Many of them speak some version of Hindi and eat some kind of Indian food. They merge with the local scene by adapting their customs to appear close to local practices. For early migrants, intermarriages with the local populations were rare. Many have seen India only recently, basically to trace their roots to create a sense of belonging to Indian civilization.

The Indian diaspora has made a mark in the literary, social and political life of the countries they adopted. First and foremost, they worked tirelessly and earned a reputation for industry, honesty and integrity. Their work culture was in contrast to the fun loving and easy going nature of early inhabitants of some of the countries. Their cultural heritage, their efforts to achieve excellence, their yearning for education their propensity for savings and their enterprise were impressive. They built schools and hospitals wherever they went and sent their children abroad for higher studies. The children of blue-collar workers became professionals and managers and, in some countries, they came to control the economy through trade, commerce and industry.

Among the South Pacific states, Fiji is the most advanced, basically because of the Indian diaspora. Essentially, the Indian communities there also brought about political changes in the Caribbean and Mauritius. Their strong political sense too was refreshing. Indian independence impelled them to seek freedom for the countries of their adoption. In Fiji, for instance, the local population did not want independence from the British Crown and it was the Indian leaders, who pushed for freedom and democracy.

India had pursued a policy of detachment with the diaspora, particularly because India wanted to be politically correct and did not want to be accused of interference in internal affairs of other countries. India expected its communities abroad to owe their allegiance to the countries of their adoption, but remained alive to their welfare and interests. India simply took back those who had to leave countries like Myanmar and Uganda for policy reasons and did not even claim the properties left behind by them.

It was Rajiv Gandhi, at the time of the Fiji coup, who decided to fight against the denial of fundamental rights to the Fiji Indians. He imposed sanctions against the military regime and even got Fiji thrown out of the Commonwealth. His logic was that since he wanted the diaspora to participate in the economic development of India, he could not be insensitive to their problems. Fiji eventually returned to democracy after a period of 10 years, but the turmoil continued till recently.

In more recent years, the diaspora has come to be a bridge between India and their host country, notably in the US and the UK. The Indian diaspora in these countries have come to acquire great influence because of their education, competence and dedication. The nearly three million Indian Americans, though they form only one percent of the population, play a significant role in the political, cultural, academic, scientific, and technological fields. Indian Americans have also formed political action committees, not only to secure their rights as a minority community, but also to foster US-India relations.

The political role of Indian Americans became pronounced during the period of the India-US Nuclear Agreement, which ran into rough weather both in India and the US. Having realized the significance of the agreement not only in scientific terms, but also in political terms, the Indian Americans campaigned effectively among the Congressmen, Senators and other decision makers and helped its conclusion. The stature of the Indian community has begun to help India and the improvement in India-US relations has begun to help the diaspora to meet their own interests. After the emergence of president Trump, Indian Americans have begun to feel a sense of insecurity, particularly after three shootings, two of which were fatal. The suspension of H1 B Visa has also caused concern, but the belief is that the IT industry in the US can't survive on its own.

Only the Indian nationals in the Gulf have fulfilled the expectation of the diaspora to make remittances to India and to invest here. The remittances from the Gulf saved Kerala from bankruptcy some years ago and still contribute to the state’s prosperity. In recognition of this, both the central and the state Governments have been giving particular attention to the needs of the Indians in the Gulf.

India and its diaspora have rediscovered each other and realized that they can help each other. The various initiatives like the establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, now part of the Ministry of External Affairs. the convening of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, once in two years in India and once a year in different regions, the Pravasi Bharatiya Awards for distinguished members of the diaspora are the gestures of a grateful nation for its children abroad. In fact, there is a consensus among all the political parties in India that we should do more and more for its diaspora.

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