The term “diaspora” originally used for Jews living outside Israel, has come to be used for people who have spread or have been dispersed from their homeland (native country). The term in Indian context is used to describe Indian nationals and citizens living abroad for work or business.

Diaspora serves as an important phenomenon for non-state actors, soft powers in foreign policy analysis, and an ‘inevitable link’ between the home and host lands for the people.

  • For instance, in the economic sphere, the Chinese diaspora has been a propelling force for its emergence as an economic superpower due to their significant contribution to FDI.
  • In the political sphere, the Jewish diaspora has a strong grip over the US and the European Union in terms of shaping their strategic relationship with Israel.

Historical Background

Ancient and Medieval

  • Indians have been migrating to various parts of the world from ages immemorial. The earliest emigration
    of Indians may be traced to the trade and religious contacts with other civilizations like the Greek and the
    Mesopotamian.
    Later on, there were also instances of the Buddhist monks spreading the religion and religious gospels across the South and Southeast Asia.
  • Indians and Indian Kingdoms have spread over across the seas. However, population movements in the ancient phase never led to any formation of permanent Indian settlements abroad. Apart form the above, Indians had trade links with the East Africa through various groups such as the Ismailis, the Horas. The Ranyas and the Chettiyars under the banner of Nattukottai Chettiyar Association.
  • Ever before the colonial indentured labour migration, population mobility was inherent in the social order and was observed in the case of the marginal peasants who shifted their loyalties from one master to another and hence traveled from one region to another.

Colonial Period

  • The British rule and its impact on the Indian peasantry, the famines, and the consequent economic backwardness resulted in mass unemployment. The institution of Slavery was banned by the British in 1830s which created an acute labour shortage in sugar plantations of the British and European colonies. This situation gave birth to the indentured form of labour from India and other parts of Asia. Much of the recruitment of this form of labour was done form Western Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Orissa.

Post-Colonial Period

  • The migration in the post-colonial period was entirely different when compared with the earlier forms of
    migration in the ancient-medieval and the colonial phases. Here, the migrants are mostly from the middleclass, with instruction in English, and were skilled. The educational system in the post Independent India was patterned after the British and American educational systems. The system produced professionals who outnumbered the availability of jobs that can absorb them. The migration was mainly to the developed nations of the West the U.S., the U.K., and some in the Europe and Australia.
  • In the last few decades, a considerable number of professional, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, as well as students from India have shifted abroad.
  • According to Global Migration Report 2020, India continues to be the largest country of origin of international migrants with a 17.5 million-strong diaspora across the world, and it received the highest remittance of $78.6 billion (this amounts to a whopping 3.4% of India’s GDP) from Indians living abroad.
  • Today, the Indian diaspora is more prosperous than before and its involvement in India’s development is increasing. It contributes by way of remittances, investment, lobbying for India, promoting Indian culture abroad and for building a good image of India by their intelligence and industry.
India and Diaspora: India's Diaspora Policy

India’s Diaspora Policy

Active Dissociation

  • India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, pursued a policy of “active dissociation” from the Indian diaspora.
  • He was concerned about the impact of connecting with and advocating for this diaspora on the sovereignty of host countries. Nehru’s policy left a bitter taste for generations among Indian-origin communities abroad.
  • His cold view of overseas Indians was encapsulated in a comment made in India’s Parliament in 1957: “If they adopt the nationality of that country, we have no concern with them. Sentimental concern there is, but politically they cease to be Indian nationals.” The implication of Nehru’s views was that the diaspora could not expect India to fight for their rights and therefore, India’s foreign policy was accordingly structured as a model of non-interference whenever the emigrant Indians got into trouble in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, etc.
  • However, Lai Bahadur Shastra entered into an agreement with Sirimavo Bandaranaike to resolve the question of Tamils in Sri Lanka and made a beginning. Otherwise, the Nehruvian trend was continued and extended till 1980 by successive governments.

New Era for Diaspora Policy

  • Indian community globally was considered as ‘one’ only on national days or other important occasions. It was under the regime of Rajiv Gandhi that there was a boost in the diaspora policy. He offered support at Fiji Indian crisis in 1986. Besides, having realized Indian diaspora as a strategic asset, he invited talents like Sam Pitroda to participate in nation-building and took administrative measures to establish the Indian Overseas department in 1984.
  • The policy of reaching out to the Indian diaspora began in earnest during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was under NDA-I that Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was first launched in 2003 to be celebrated on 9th of January which marks the day when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. The government decided to celebrate it annually by holding events including bestowing awards on the prominent members of the Indian diaspora.

An Era of Importance

  • Narendra Modi, after assuming the office of Prime Minister in 2014, has brought the linkage between Indian diasporic community and development of the country. Since then, diaspora has become an important feature of Indian foreign policy, which is now centred on strengthening the role and significance of Indian diasporic community in the development of the country, in addition to attracting global investment, aid and technology.
  • The current government has launched a scheme called ‘Know India Program’ (KIP) in 2016 for diaspora engagement which familiarizes Indian-origin youth (18-30 years) with their Indian roots and contemporary India,

Significance of Indian Diaspora

Strategic Advances

  • This change in Indian diaspora policy is reflected in special outreach to Indian communities during Prime Minister’s visits to the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
  • Moreover, the government has made a conscious effort to reconnect the Indians living abroad to their homeland by simplifying visa regulations and merging the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Card into a single identity card to secure lifelong Indian visas, avoid checks at local police stations during visits, and started a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs among many other initiatives.
  • This diaspora policy not only focuses on the rich, industrialists, white collared professionals but gives due
    respect to the working class population. It is evident from the PM’s visit to Indian workers’ camp in Abu
    Dhabi, establishing the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF), and announcing an online platform ‘MADAD’ to assist them. In 2015, the Indian government launched Operation Rahat to evacuate Indian citizens when war broke out in Yemen. The Union Cabinet has also approved proxy voting for non-resident Indians.

Political Front

  • Many people of Indian origin hold top political positions in many countries, in the US itself they are now a significant part of Republicans and Democrats, as well as the government.
  • The political clout of India’s diaspora can be estimated by the fact, the role it played in turning around doubting legislators into voting for the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

Foreign Policy Front

  • Indian diaspora is not just a part of India’s soft power, but a fully transferable political vote bank as well.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reception at Madison Square Garden is a way of thanking the Indian-American community members who played a big part in his electronic campaign and election funding.
  • The institutionalisation of “diaspora diplomacy” is a distinct indication for the fact that a country’s diaspora community has become considerably more important as a subject of interest for foreign policy and associated government activities.

Economic Strength

  • The diaspora has not only contributed through FDI, remittances and transfer of knowledge and entrepreneurial means but also through the rise of the services sector in India, especially in the IT and ITES sectors.
  • Indian diaspora is one of the richest minorities in many developed countries, this helped them to lobby for favourable terms regarding India’s interests. For example, at 2.8 million, Indians may number just 1% of the U.S. population, but they are the most educated and richest minority, according to a 2013 Pew survey.
  • The migration of less-skilled labour (especially to West Asia) has also helped in bringing down disguised unemployment in India.
  • In general, migrants’ remittances have positive systemic effects on the balance of payments. Remittances of $70-80 billion help to bridge a wider trade deficit.
    • India retained the top spot among world’s largest remittance recipient country in 2018 getting $80 billion. FDI inflows increased from $36 billion in 2013-14 to $60 billion in 2016-17.
  • By weaving a web of cross-national networks, the migrant workers facilitated the flow of tacit information, commercial and business ideas, and technologies into India.
  • Most importantly, the Indian diaspora is also active in local politics in countries like the U.K. and Canada. The government has also urged diaspora members to invest in social projects such as improving rural sanitation and visiting India every year to boost tourism. However, the importance of Diasporas does not end with remittances alone, but extends to knowledge transfer, the sharing of resources, acting as unofficial Indian ambassadors , and pushing for India’s interests abroad.
Soft Power - India and Diaspora

Diaspora and Indian Interests

  • The role of diaspora in shaping and furthering India’s foreign policy goals is unclear. The most successful role the diaspora played was in ensuring the passage of the India-US Nuclear Deal in 2008. Nevertheless, as more people of Indian origin take up larger roles in politics, business and entertainment abroad, they will be more likely to not only invest in India but also help further India’s interests.
  • Two good examples are Antonio Costa, the Portuguese Prime Minister, and Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime
    Minister. Both belong to the Indian diaspora
    , and come from two economically strong countries that can trade with India. Portugal has already signed MOUs with India in science and technology, double taxation avoidance, space, trade and investment.
  • Further, India and Portugal have agreed to create a joint science fund of four million Euros where they will collaborate in science research projects. As for Ireland and other countries like the Netherlands with a large Indian diaspora, they are more likely to support India in her bid to join the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This will be even more likely with enough pressure from the diaspora.
  • India can also benefit from the diaspora in North America in achieving her space, defence and security goals. Groups like the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), Friends of India, Canada
    India Foundation (CIF) and Canada India Business Council (CIBC), are already actively pushing for India’s
    interests.
  • Take for example the recent passing of the American defence budget in June 2017, to talling SUS621 billion, where Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera, stressed in his amendment for “advanced defence cooperation between our two nations”. The amendment included a 180-day deadline for the US to develop its defence strategy with India.
  • In Canada, the CIF and the CIBC are proponents of stronger ties between the two states, even supporting
    a free trade deal.
    In April 2017, Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defence minister, visited India to strengthen defence
    ties between the two nations.
  • Similarly, about five to six million overseas Indians, comprising Indian citizens abroad and persons of
    Indian origin, live in ASEAN countries
    . Ethnic Indians have long been an integral part of their societies. They have acted as a bridge between the two regions and the overall public opinion towards Indians is positive.
    This plays a key role in developing closer ASEAN-India ties.
  • It is held that despite India pursuing stronger ties with Israel, it enjoys a favourable relationship with the Saudi Arabia, perhaps to an extent due to the presence of the diaspora.
  • Smaller but equally important way in which the Indian community abroad helps further India’s foreign policy goals, is by helping in the return of stolen artefacts. The Indian Pride Project for example successfully lobbied to bring back the famous Nataraja from Australia, and sandstone Yakshi from the United States.
  • However, some gaps remain in India’s diaspora policy. These are irregularity of diaspora conferences, employer-employee mode of India-Gulf relations, hurdles to diaspora investment and poor efforts to bring about brain gain. The support of the diaspora is neither automatic nor continuous. They have been critical of bureaucratic procedures in India among other issues.

Challenges Faced by Indian Diaspora

  • Heterogeneous diaspora: Indian Diaspora has different demands from the Indian Government.
    • The diaspora from the Gulf, for example, look to India for support on welfare issues.
    • While those from wealthier nations such as the US look to India for investment opportunities.
    • The Indian communities in countries such as Fiji and Mauritius, meanwhile, desire to reconnect with the country on cultural grounds.
  • Anti-Globalization: With the rising Anti-globalization wave, there has been an increase in the incidents of suspected hate crimes against the Indian community.
  • West Asian Crisis: The volatility in West Asia, together with the fall in oil prices, has caused fears of a massive return of Indian nationals, curtailing remittances and making demands on the job market.
  • Returning Diaspora: India must also realise that diaspora in West Asia is semi-skilled and mainly engaged in the infrastructure sector. After the infrastructure boom will get over India should be ready for the eventuality of Indian workers returning.
  • Regulatory Cholesterol: There are many inadequacies of the Indian system for the diaspora to collaborate with India or to invest in the country.
    • For example, grievances like red tape, multiple clearances, distrust of government are acting as hindrances in fulfilling opportunities presented by Indian Diaspora.
  • Negative Fallout: It must be remembered that having a strong diaspora does not always translate to benefits for the home country.
    India has had problems with negative campaigning and foreign funding, coming from abroad, for separatist movements like the Khalistan movement.

Way Forward

Indian diaspora can provide the requisite strategic impulse, which makes it all the more important to unlock India’s potential.

  • India should formulate a new NRI policy, the government must immediately work with developed countries to ask that they kick back a portion of the income tax revenues they collect from the Indian diaspora.
    • This is fair because these countries did not invest anything in creating this talent but benefit immediately when the immigrant pays taxes abroad.
  • There is a need for a strategic diaspora evacuation policy from conflict zones in a world where crises materialise without warnings and give very little reaction time for governments.
  • India’s foreign policy aims to translate partnerships to benefits for key projects like Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga, Make In India, Digital India, and Skill India, the diaspora has plenty of scopes to contribute.
  • VAJRA (Visiting Advanced Joint Research Faculty) scheme which seeks to formalise a rotation program wherein top NRI scientists, engineers, doctors, managers and professionals serve Indian public sector organizations for a brief period, lending their expertise- is a step in the right direction.
  • Improvement in ease of doing business will go long, in enabling investments from the Indian diaspora.

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