Mother India’s relations with its children abroad has been on the rise since they discovered each other a few years ago. India has acknowledged and welcomed the contribution the overseas Indians have made to its development by way of remittances, deposits and technology. In turn, India has developed a number of measures to meet their aspirations by providing protection of their interests in India and abroad. India became proactive in interceding with the host countries when problems arose even though they had gone on their own contracts. In countries where the Indians are powerful and influential, they became India's unofficial ambassadors, who promote Indian interests there. On balance, both sides benefited from this cooperation.
The advent of the unprecedented pandemic, COVID- 19 has posed a number of challenges to India in protecting its population. An important challenge among them is the expectation from its diaspora at this hour of crisis. The roles of India as the recipient and the diaspora as the giver are likely to be reversed if a large number of the 30 million people scattered all over the world turn to India for support. Added to this is the real danger of loss of lives among the diaspora, resulting in cases of deprivation and misery. Unless the spread of coronavirus is halted and the world economy recovers, India will have a gigantic responsibility on its hands.
It will be recalled that India responded heartily to the requirements of the diaspora by creating the machinery in our missions abroad and in state capitals and Delhi and instituted the annual Pravasi Divas and Pravasi Samman. Problems were ironed out as they arose and the mutuality between the government and the migrants became a saga of mutual respect and cooperation. The intervention of the government was very helpful in various ways and the richer migrants began investing in India on a massive scale. Whenever the domestic laws demanded return of Indians, the government intervened either to retain them there or to give them grants or loans to resettle in India.
In other words, the Indians in the Gulf made their own contribution to the development of India and secured the privileges the state could offer. India went to the support of the diaspora when the latter faced difficulties in different parts of the world. This was in contrast to the Indian policy in the earlier years of keeping hands off Indians abroad and merely rehabilitating them when they had to leave countries like Burma, the Caribbean countries and Uganda because of their internal laws. The change of policy came at the time of the military coup against the Indians in Fiji, when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi got the military Government expelled from the Commonwealth in 1988.
All political parties vied with each other to provide support to the overseas Indians. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a major pillar of his foreign policy. The then Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was personally involved in cases brought to her attention through distress calls from abroad, particularly the Gulf. Her role in resolving issues through Twitter and the Indian missions became legendary. She became a household name among the Indians abroad as they felt that she was only a phone call away. After she left the Cabinet and then passed away, the Indians felt orphaned. They have begun to feel that they would have been happier if she was still the minister for overseas Indians.
COVID-19 arrived most unexpectedly on to this scene and, like a Shakespearean villain, turned everything topsy-turvy, bringing the main dramatis personae into confrontation with each other. It was precisely the spread of the Indian diaspora across the world that caused the initial infections. The first case came to Kerala through an Indian student from the epicentre of the disease, Wuhan. Then Indians were spotted in the most unexpected places like Italy, Spain and Iran, who were anxious to return to India as expeditiously as possible. If the flights were not suspended and the airports closed around the world, thousands of Indians would have arrived in India with or without the virus, causing an emergency in every sector. India still brought back our nationals from some countries, but the expectation exceeded India's capacity already.
The way in which the affected Indians reacted to India's inability to get them back quickly was ominous. In case the virus persists even after the present lockdown, the pressure to bring our people back will become a Herculean task. India naturally will have to move mountains to bring them back from the Middle East and the United States, where the situation is deteriorating. One shudders to think of the great humanitarian crisis it will create if Indians were to come back from the far corners of the globe.
An unfortunate aspect of COVID-19 is that it is seen as an imported disease. Most cases were associated with the Indians and foreigners who arrived soon after the onset of the tragedy. Some of them went around socializing in their communities without knowing that they were carriers of the virus. Some even deliberately did not disclose that they had recently come back from infected areas. Even now, most infections are traced to the returnees. Each day, when the Kerala Chief Minister reports elaborately on the state of COVID-19, he mentions Gulf returnees as the source of new infections. Though these are facts, some are offended by this characterization.
The Indians abroad, at least the Indian nationals, have every right to come back and India has every obligation to take them back. Mother India will definitely fulfil all its obligations to her children abroad. The position taken by most countries in the world that everyone must stay wherever they are till the virus subsides will have to be respected. This is particularly important for doctors, nurses and health workers, who will be required even after the situation stabilises.
We are already hearing about India’s neglect and apathy for the plight of the Indian diaspora. But nobody can manage the biggest movement of people across the globe if everyone insists on returning at the same time. It may be fair to the host countries and India if migrant workers continue to work diligently and receive proper compensation and respect in the countries they are in. They should never face the kind of problems that migrant workers in different states of India are facing today.
India should negotiate with the countries concerned to provide the Indian workers good medical treatment and other facilities. If their salary is maintained and they are given better living conditions, many of them may choose to stay back in the countries concerned. If a mad rush to come home begins, the issues will be too complex to comprehend and tackle. The situation should be monitored and contingency plans made to avert a crisis.