Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated, in Varanasi, on January 22, the 15th session of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas which is the country's flagship endeavour with the global Indian diaspora. The event is now biannual; the Varanasi show attracted around 4000 overseas Indian participants from 85 countries. The choice of the venue was obviously deliberate and with political undertones in the context of the coming elections. Notwithstanding this implicit motive there was no objection because Varanasi is one of India's foremost cities and an attraction for the diaspora.
Overseas Indians have always had a special place in the Sangh Parivar's external approaches; many of its affiliate organisations have, over the past many decades, established strong links with the diaspora. It was therefore not surprising that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led government gave a strong push to deepen links with people of Indian origin as well as non-resident Indians, the two categories that constitute the diaspora. The former group are nationals of foreign states while the latter retain their Indian nationality. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas initiative is part of this overall attempt to bring the diaspora on one platform and enhance its ties with India.
The diaspora was very different at India's independence in 1947. Then its largest section consisted of the descendants of Indian indentured labour and others who had followed them to British colonies all across the world—the West Indies, Africa, Malaya, Mauritius and Fiji. The labour was taken by the British to work in the sugar cane and rubber plantations after slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. The fact is that indentured labourers were virtual slaves, far from the land of their origin, virtually unable to return, but they and their descendants clung to their culture even though they adapted it to local conditions.
In the early decades of the last century leading members of the national movement demanded that Indian indentured labour should be treated fairly and with dignity. They also asked for the abolition of the system itself. That was done in 1917. Thus independent India inherited a tradition of concern for the welfare of the diaspora. However, mired with its own problems India could materially do little to improve its lot. India's advice was that Indian communities should live in harmony with the original populations and develop a sense of loyalty to the land of their adoption.
India was a leader of the global decolonisation movement of the 1950s and the 1960s. In countries with large Indian origin populations it wanted them to acquire full rights but, at the same time, it did not want to get in the cross-fire of original population and Indian community. This was especially in Africa, though apartheid South Africa was a case apart, and Malaysia. The decolonisation process also led to a few countries—Mauritius and Guyana– with Indian origin led governments. The former was fully supported by Indira Gandhi.
From the 1960s the Indian diaspora began to increasingly change. A non-resident community consisting of two broad categories began to grow. The first group consisted of labour mainly in the Arab peninsular and the second of professionals and businessmen in advanced as well as developing countries. The labour has been and are a transient and floating group but they have and continue to make an enormous contribution to the Indian economy through their remittances—US $ 69 billion in 2017. Through the decades India has sought to strengthen its own institutional regime to look after their needs and has also worked with recipient countries to ensure that employers adhere to contractual obligations. This needs constant vigil and the present external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has done well by Indian labour abroad. The merger of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs with the External Affairs Ministry has also been a good step for a focus on this issue has to be part of India's diplomatic engagement.
Over the years, Indian professionals and businessmen abroad, many of whom acquired foreign citizenship, put down roots in foreign communities and achieved success. This group's attitude towards India is complex: of wanting to help in India's growth story and in some countries, such as the US, acting as effective lobbying groups for Indian concerns; disdain and almost constant criticism of the Indian administrative system and procedures; and, sometimes an attitude of 'knowing things better' without actually being aware of the ground situation.
The descendants of indentured labour have also done well in many countries. They have become professionals, bureaucrats and academics. Some have entered their countries' public life and achieved success. This has been seen in Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, post- apartheid South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana among other countries apart from Mauritius. The success of recent immigrants in the political life of advanced countries such as the US, Canada, UK, Ireland and Portugal has also been noteworthy.
With all these, new dimensions in the interaction of India with its diaspora are now emerging. The diaspora is recognising India's growing weight in international affairs and this is generating positive vibes among them. Some are also sensing greater commercial and economic opportunities especially as Indian rules for them are putting them almost on par with resident Indians. India is also adapting to the changing needs of the diaspora.
No Indian government should overlook the fact that the diaspora, like India itself, is culturally and in terms of faith multi-hued. It is not monochromatic. Hence, inclusive approaches should always guide India's outreach to the diaspora.