By Amit Dasgupta
Six months plus into the job, there is genuine surprise at the visible enthusiasm with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken to foreign policy.
Two things are becoming clear: first, that PM uses soft-power diplomacy effectively; and second, he sees the diaspora as having the potential to play a transformative role in bilateral relations.There is debate as to whether use of the word ‘diaspora’ is legitimate. Greek in origin, the word means ‘to sow over, to scatter’ and for long, had memories of the tragic dislocation of the Jewish people.
Over time, the word has been used to refer to ‘scattered communities’ or those who migrated from their homeland to other places.Some critics feel the word suggests homogeneity and a shared identity, which includes values and practices among the dispersed community that can be explicitly associated with the land and people they left behind. An Indian site refers to the diaspora as having retained ‘their emotional, cultural and spiritual links with the country of their origin, [striking] a reciprocal chord in the hearts of the people of India.
‘The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, started in 2003, celebrates precisely this perception: those who live outside India continue to be Indian in thought and spirit, despite holding other nationalities.
January 7-9, over the past 10 years, has, accordingly, become a kind of celebratory homecoming for the community. Awards are instituted to recognize high achievers in their adopted country. Indeed, it has become customary to refer to the diaspora as ‘India’s true ambassadors’.According to the website of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the size of the Indian diaspora is estimated at 22 million, including in places as unlikely as Angola and Micronesia, with largest concentrations in the US, Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore.
It surprised me when I visited the Republic of Palau, a tiny island country in the western Pacific to which I was concurrently accredited as Ambassador, that the most frequented restaurant was owned by an Indian, who had migrated a few years ago from Kerala. It was at his restaurant that I first met the Vice President of the country and half the Cabinet!In the earlier years, the focus was entirely on the excellent students from the IITs and other prestigious universities migrating to the US for further studies and then, long-term residency. Seen as brain drain, the migrants were looked down upon.
There was, however, a growing sense of pride when the American national of Indian origin Har Gobind Khorana won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1968.The focus then shifted to skilled and semi-skilled workers, particularly from Kerala, migrating to the Gulf for jobs. Stories of how much money they earned and the opportunities the Gulf boom offered were an attractive enough to encourage migrants from other parts of India as well, such as Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.Remittances from workers became an important source of revenue for the government. Expectedly, touts and labour recruiting agents emerged and the government was forced to toughen its emigration legislation, to ensure greater protection for the workers. The work was, then, transferred from the Ministry of External Affairs to the Ministry of Labour.
The creation of Silicon Valley and the huge foray Indian IT made in the US and other western markets, coupled with Thomas Friedman’s use of the word ‘Bangalored’, were an eye-opener. Gradually, there was increasing recognition that the diaspora could, in fact, be used to India’s overall advantage. This was a major foreign policy shift.
In September 2000, the government of India constituted the Hi-level Committee on the Indian Diaspora under the chairmanship of Dr. L.M.Singhvi, which submitted its report on January 8th 2002 to the Prime Minister. The comprehensive nature of the report was the first of its kind to ascertain how the government could enhance its interface with the growing diasporic community. In 2003, the first PBD was organized to commemorate January 9th, when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa 88 years ago to lead India’s freedom movement.
Perhaps the biggest shift occurred when the role of the ‘India lobby’ to push the India-US 123 agreement came to the fore. President Bush went on record to say, ‘The Indian American community was vital to explaining this strategic bill to our fellow citizens…I want you to know that your voice was very effective, and I welcome it.’ (Speech to Congress; December 2006) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh added, ‘The historic agreement on cooperation in the development of civilian nuclear energy in India….is in no small measure due to the very supportive role the Indian American community and the friend of India in the US have played. I thank you all for this.’ (Speech at Hotel Waldorf; September 2008).
This recognition of the political role the diaspora can play has effectively transformed the manner in which the Indian community is now viewed. This explains the strong emphasis PM Modi placed, especially in the US and in Australia, to reach out to the resident community through a massive eye-catching public event. He is aware that many members of the community hold posts of high influence, not only as doctors, educationists and legal luminaries but also in the political field. The PBD offers the perfect platform to recognize their high achievement. This year, the chief guest is the President of Guyana.
As the government crafts its development agenda and seeks foreign investment and participation not only in manufacturing but also, and more importantly, in education and skill enhancement, it has started to see the considerable advantages that accrue through a win-win participation by the diaspora in the process. This is possibly why the government is likely to announce the merger of the OCI and PIO cards, and a series of fresh incentives to encourage the diaspora to invest their savings in India.
At the same time, the government is aware that the diaspora is not uniform and not all members of the diaspora are held in high regard or esteem in their adopted home. Being ‘true ambassadors’ literally means, how the local residents perceive the community would be how the local residents would perceive India and all Indians. A great responsibility lies on the shoulders of the community members.
In Australia, when the attacks on the Indian students broke out, a person of Indian origin owned the first dodgy school that collapsed. Several Indian students, who were mugged as they came home late from work, were employed by Indians, who paid them below Australian minimum wages and furthermore, forced them to violate the terms of their visa conditions, which stipulated the maximum number of hours they could work.
In New Zealand, recently, Indian women complained that it was fellow Indians who subjected them to eve-teasing and sexual advances. In the Philippines, the illegal immigration by poor Indians, mainly from Punjab, lured by the money-lending mafia run by Indians, has reduced the Philippines’ visa-on-arrival policy for Indian passport holders to a farce, rendering genuine travelers helpless. How we behave determines perceptions.
The diaspora can, undoubtedly, play a transformative role. At the same time, it is important that the government reaches out to the community by offering them alternative opportunities to invest and economically prosper. Interaction with the community to enhance engagement with the local and national political leadership will strengthen our foreign policy initiatives. Regular interactive platforms need to be established to draw on the expertise of the Pravasi Bharatiya awardees as to how bilateral relations may be augmented. There is much that the government needs to do if it is to draw on the best the diaspora can offer.
(Amit Dasgupta is former Indian diplomat. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
This story originally appeared on The Indian Diaspora.