the dayafter
  The Day After


The Day After





The Great Indian Diaspora

India is a proud recipient of more remittances from its Diaspora than any other country, beating China and Mexico and reigning at $21.7 billion per annum.


Sreeram Chaulia

When Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose staged his immortal “great escape” from house arrest in Calcutta to Peshawar in 1941, little did he know that he was embarking on a journey to become what we refer to in current-day parlance as an ‘NRI’. In the next four years, his lightning caravan of patriotism travelled from Afghanistan to the USSR, Italy, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Malaya and Burma, briefly kissing Nagaland and Manipur, as fortunes flip-flopped in World War II’s Asian front.

Convinced that India’s self-determination could not be achieved purely through domestic political agitation, Bose offered in those flickering four years, not only hope for liberation from British rule but also vindication that Indians overseas have a critical role to play in the destiny of their land of origin. Through electrifying radio broadcasts and whirlwind visits, he galvanised the overseas Indian community in the areas occupied by Japan to provide recruits, money and goods for the Azad Hind Fauj. NRI equipment, uniforms, boots and food were his raw materials for freedom.

Bose made Mother India sit up and take notice that her offspring in faraway shores had not filially forsaken it. He set a lofty standard for NRIs by asserting, “every Indian overseas is her or his country’s unofficial ambassador.” In their conduct, speech and action, Bose wanted the ‘Diaspora’ to bear upon image consequences for India. Credit for the idea that the Diaspora can be an important element of ‘soft power’ should go to this lion-hearted strategist.

Today, a good sixty years after Bose's death-defying exploits as an NRI, in a different world historical context, India once again seeks to leverage the tremendous intellectual, financial and communicative resources of its ‘Diaspora’, estimated to number 25 million. Widely scattered across five continents, they are also regionally concentrated as per the quirks of fate and, more latterly, by choice. From descendants of indentured labour to the techno-savvy whiz kid immigrants of the New Economy, they span an eclectic range of low-, semi- and high-skilled occupations, growing in stature as their achievements receive lavish praise in the countries of domicile.

Among the most lauded, though under-emphasised, accomplishments of the Great Indian Diaspora has been recognition that they are peace-loving and openly tolerant in alien cultural settings. At a time when Western Europe and North America are turning into fortresses against ‘unwanted’ migration, popularly-held stereotypes of different ethnic communities matter. After the September 11 terrorist attacks (planned by Islamist immigrants in Germany), they matter to the point of deportation of aliens of ‘suspect’ nature.

The ‘Indian Diaspora’, unlike the Pakistani or Arab ones, has largely won quiet approval as a more adaptable and integrated lot that does not erect artificial barriers against Western values and has less of an identity crisis with violent externalities. PIO supporters of Khalistan or of the Sangh Parivar are mere blips in the general Western imagination. For the most part, an average American, Canadian or Dutchman does not see Indian immigrants as national security or economic threats, thanks to their humble, flexible and endearing qualities. As Salman Rushdie has aptly put it, “Indians don't just own the ground beneath their feet; it owns them, too.”

If at all there is a melting pot in Diaspora-receiving parts of the world, Indians seem to be automatic ingredients who nonetheless manage to maintain distinctness based on emotional bonds for their country of origin. The sophisticated ability of the NRI psyche to inhabit multiple selves and be Roman while in Rome is an art worthy of emulation. PIOs’ jubilation at the recent activation of dual citizenship and voting rights by the Government of India reflects the Diaspora’s protean genius and meets its inner needs of affection and belonging to the broader Indian family.

Portrayals of NRIs as self-centred absconders who free ride on India’s infrastructure and then vanish to make fortunes in faraway places are jaundiced and myopic remnants of the now-discredited ‘brain drain’ theory. The Diaspora has India in its mind and often initiates charitable projects and investments for human development and disaster relief back home. There is no dearth of brainstorming among PIOs as to why India is poor and what can be done about it. While several Diaspora contributions are of individual nature, there are quite a few organised NRI ventures dedicated to India’s welfare. Take, for instance, Asha for Education, a movement with 52 chapters in Europe, North America, Singapore and Australia, which has funded 385 literacy projects in India to the tune of S$6.7 million, as of 2004.

Through their glittering academic and professional careers overseas, the Diaspora opened the eyes of the West to India as a reliable destination for business process outsourcing (BPO) and for the cutting-edge phenomenon – knowledge process outsourcing (KPO). India is the proud recipient of more remittances from its Diaspora than any other country, beating China and Mexico and reigning at $21.7 billion per annum. In place of guilt for allegedly forsaking Mother India for greener pastures, PIOs today hold their heads high and claim to be essential components in India’s march to greatness. To quote Shashi Tharoor, ‘NRI’ now stands for “Never Relinquished India.”

Wherever it resides, thanks to these stellar deeds, a new confidence is showing in the Indian Diaspora’s sense as a community, manifesting itself in interest group lobbying, climbing of political ladders and Lakshmi Mittal-style conquering of global business horizons.

Without doubt, Bose’s idealistic legacy has been upheld.

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