Parag Agrawal a 37-year-old Indian-American has been appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the popular microblogging platform Twitter. He joins a number of Persons of Indian origin (PIO) who have achieved remarkable success in their chosen fields of endeavour in the advanced countries.
These persons are first- or second-generation Indians who themselves (like Agrawal) or their parents migrated to developed countries for economic or professional reasons. There are also PIOs in former British colonies who have made great achievements in a range of activities stretching from politics to business to the learned professions. They are the descendants of indentured labour who were lured to the colonies to do back-breaking work in the plantations. While the attainments of PIOs and the diaspora in general can be a cause of celebration the sufferings of the indentured labour should never be forgotten.
A recent podcast entitled “Girmitiya: A Saga of Indian Indentured Labourers in Fiji” carried on a prominent Indian website is a reminder of the trials, tribulations, indeed the gamut of experience of those who left India to go to Fiji to work on the British colony’s sugar cane plantations. It can be taken as representative of the indentured experience throughout the British colonies. Fiji was the last colony to introduce indentured Indian labour in 1879. However, the system began in the 1830s after the abolition of slavery in British controlled territories. It ended in 1917 through the pressure put on British colonial rulers by enlightened Indians. The word ‘girmit’ was used by the labour for the agreement under which they went. From that word is derived the word ‘girmitiya’, a synonym for one who was little better than a slave during the period of the indenture. And the chance to return to India after the indenture ended was almost impossible
Like thousands of Indians in distress or who wanted to improve their condition, Totaram Sanadhya was duped into going to Fiji in 1893 by agents of the then manpower recruiting organisations. These agents spun false tales of opportunities in the colonies. After completing his five-year bond period Totaram lived in Fiji for another sixteen years returning to India in 1914. He wrote of his experiences in Fiji and the horrors of the indentured system in his work, in Hindi, “My twenty-one years in Fiji”. It attracted substantial country-wide attention and helped in building public opinion against the indentured system.
The indentured system was facilitated by a large number of touts who duped gullible people in the poorer parts of India with dreams of pots of gold in the colonies. Like these touts, today too, there are agents who hold out false promises to many young people in India of getting them legal entry into developed countries where they can make their fortunes. This human trafficking is criminal activity which more often than not leads to great human suffering. The youth who are lured by human traffickers either end up in jail in foreign lands or spend years in misery and are exploited in developed countries. Of course human trafficking is not limited to India alone but is a world-wide phenomenon. It only attracts attention when an event (such as a boat capsizing) takes place in which a large number of the victims of human traffickers die. There is need for, a far greater global cooperation to end human trafficking.
The relationship of PIOs with India is a complex one. Naturally first generation PIOs are often full of nostalgia about the motherland but are also critical of the Indian systems and governance structures. However, as the country has progressed, they have generally begun to take pride in its achievements. Where political systems permit such as in the United States PIOs have become important bridges for bilateral ties. In fact in the US, PIOs are a powerful lobby which has helped the US administration to overcome domestic political opposition and steer the country’s relations with India in a positive direction. This was seen during the entire process that led to the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement of 2008 and the exception given to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to carry on civil nuclear commerce globally despite it not being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
PIOs in the erstwhile British colonies fully belong to the lands of their birth. However, in some of these countries they continue to face fundamental issues that are the legacy of the British colonial policy of divide and rule. Fiji is one country where PIOs have faced discrimination at the hands of the native population. Fiji gained independence in 1970 but the native Fijians have not really agreed to a full equal status for PIOs. This was manifested in 1987 when the army staged a coup against the government which was dominated by PIOs. Worse still is the fate of the majority of PIOs in Fiji who are sugar cane farmers and are not allowed to own the land they till. Thus they are always insecure. Consequently, PIOs who can leave Fiji have done so.
PIOs like those from Fiji look to India for support for their cause and India has always responded positively to their just causes. At the same time these PIOs while continuing to have Indian cultural roots are also conscious of their identities as nationals of the countries of their birth. This is an aspect which Indian policy makers should not forget while cementing ties with the vast Indian diaspora.