Should India have a diaspora policy?

As per UN estimates, the Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, currently tallied at 17.5 million. 2017 witnessed some large remittances from the Indian diaspora that totalled $69 billion dollars. With an energetic and dynamic Indian diaspora, the obvious question is whether there is a formal policy that India pursues vis-a-vis its diaspora, and is there the necessity for one?

History is evidence to how the Indian diaspora has acted as a catalyst in enabling India’s core national interests as well as having an impact in the resident country that they live in. This is discernible in the fact that a US President attended the Indian Prime Minister’s Indian Diaspora event in Houston. A former Prime Minister of UK stated emphatically on stage, during an Indian Prime Minister’s Diaspora event in London, that the time is not far when the UK may well see a person of Indian origin emerging as the country’s Prime Minister.

Hailing from Tamil Nadu, I can certainly vouch for the Chola Empire that is famed for its renowned contribution of its military architecture as well as the raison d’eter for the Tamil population to have settled in several Southeast Asian countries today.

The list of incredible Indians as part of our diaspora is endless. And no I am not talking about the Sundar Pichaiss or the Arvind Krishnas, with due respects to them and their epochal achievements. A fascinating example is of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). When the INA’s intelligence wing was first established, late Saraswathi Rajamani served the wing for 3 years, simply because she was inspired by Netaji and his words. Her story is intriguing; her father was a trader from Tiruchirappalli, who later shifted base to then Burma (today Myanmar). Su Pa Narayanasamy, who is today based in Malaysia, was also part of the children’s army of Netaji Subash Bose’s INA and he leads the Netaji Centre in the country today, apart from working with the Tamil intelligentsia there.

The contribution of the Ghadar Party movement to India’s freedom struggle is noteworthy. Several who were based in US, enabled and ensured that those living in India were inspired to fight for the Indian freedom struggle against the British. We would do well to remember the 39-year-old Udham Singh, who avenged the Jallainwala Bagh massacre after 21 years, by eliminating the cruel Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. Inspired by the Ghadar party movement, he rose to the occasion.

Cut to contemporary times, and there are several people who are giving it their very best and silently and efficiently pushing the envelope to enable the Indian diaspora story. Take the example of Dr. Anupama Kizhakkeveettil, from the Southern California University of Health Sciences, who enabled the Ayurveda Day celebrations for India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power for the first time in the University, in sync with UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 of good health and well-being. Vairamuthu Vaithilingam, who traces his roots to South Tamil Nadu, organises one of Paris’ largest Ganesh Chaturthi Festival. Shoban Saxena enables Sao Paulo’s famous street carnival, Bloco Bollywood. These are all Indians like you and me, who are out there, institutionalising some remarkable movements.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his addresses to the Diaspora, has mentioned the importance of ‘brain gain’ not ‘brain drain’. While the specifics of this are yet to be clearly stated, to this effect, individuals from abroad, are coming back to do their bit for the country. Albeit a nascent development, this is a step in the right direction. In Chennai, for example, we have Raj Cherubal, an NRI who is an alumnus of the University of Michigan and University of Louisville, currently heading the Chennai Smarty City Project, a joint project of the Union Government and the Government of Tamil Nadu.

India has displayed remarkable alertness and swiftness when it comes to safeguarding the interests of the Diaspora abroad, when it comes to rescue operations. During Operation Raahat in 2016 when the Yemen crisis was in its peak, India launched a special Air India aircraft to evacuate a three day old baby. Of course, institutionally there is still much to be done to enable both civilian and military responses to diaspora evacuations in the days to come, but the steps are all in the right direction.

In 2004, India broadly defined diaspora as ‘a generic term to describe the people who migrated from territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India. It also refers to their descendants.’ Today they are referred to as Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI). In September 2000, the Central Government of the day set up a high level committee on diaspora under Dr. L. M. Singhvi. Most of what we see today of the actions towards diaspora will certainly find mention in the report.

Kenya, Canada, UK, US and China are some examples of countries that have specific diaspora policies to advance their interests. For instance in the case of Kenya, Paramjit Sahai in his book ‘Indian Cultural Diplomacy: Celebrating Pluralism in a Globalised World’ writes how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kenya has stated how the country’s foreign policy ‘rests upon four inter-linked pillars: economic diplomacy, peace diplomacy, environmental diplomacy and diaspora policy’.

In conclusion, the larger point is this: with the world’s largest diaspora being India’s, in my view the time is ripe to think of an Indian diaspora policy. As a definite starting point, a standing committee in the Parliament, something that the L.M. Singhvi committee recommended, could be instituted to actually ascertain the pros and cons of this in a bipartisan manner. This will perhaps also help in understanding the diaspora’s contribution in specific countries and formalise its role as an effective catalyst in India’s political, economic, trade and aid-related issues.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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