Introduction to the Concept of Indian Diaspora

Introduction to the Concept of Indian Diaspora

Photo : Vishnu Bisram

  1. Defining the Diaspora -- what and where is the diaspora:

The Indian Diaspora, generally speaking, is a generic term that is used to describe the people who migrated, for various reasons, from territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India; it also includes the descendants of those who migrated and or who live outside of India. Early travelers (adventurists), sea men, traders, and workers were among those who migrated and settled abroad and established communities some two hundreds years ago in various places, particularly close to India. Others were indentured laborers who were recruited, kidnapped or tricked into going to far away locations (Caribbean, Pacific, parts of Asia and Indian Ocean islands, etc.) beginning in 1828 to rescue agricultural plantations that were facing financial ruins. Some were recruited to build railroads in distant lands in Africa a hundred and fifty years back. Some went to work in North America as cheap laborers about 150 years ago though they were never welcomed. Some fought in the world wars and remained in the pacific, North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. More recently, say over the last sixty-five years, Indian migrants (students, visitors, professionals, and other workers) have settled overseas becoming citizens of those countries as did/have their children born there; they have considered the host societies where they migrated (and their children born there) as their new homeland. Some have been recruited as technical (information technology or engineers over the last twenty- five years) workers in developed countries in the West. Some of the Indians who migrated to other countries have opted to retain Indian citizenship while their overseas born children have citizenship of those adopted nations. So the term Indian diaspora encompasses all people of Indian origin tracing their roots to India) including Non Resident Indians (NRIs or Indian born citizens not residing in India or those settled abroad) and their foreign born children and all ‘PIOs’ (Persons of Indian origin who were born abroad as well those Indian born who have acquired citizenship of some other country). In short, the Indian diaspora refers to people of Indian origin living abroad. And the diaspora can be found in over 150 countries including Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, Malawi, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Brazil, Peru, and the Scandinavian nations besides the US, UK, Holland, and Canada where they are found in large numbers in the latter four. The Ministry of External Affairs of India has labeled the diaspora into four segments: older diaspora who went as indentured labourers numbering around 1.7 million; people who hold Indian citizenship but are living abroad; diaspora in the Gulf numbering around 8.5 million -- came as seasonal or contracted workers and or holding citizenship there along with their Gulf born children; and the floating overseas Indians that include students and people going for short and research purposes.


  1. History of the Diaspora:

The history of the presence of the diaspora (that was formally established with Indian settlements or communities outside of India) can be traced to several time periods. The first wave began around 1828 and ended in 1917 and that included the early (indentured) laborers to the Pacific islands, Caribbean, Mauritius, South Africa and East Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. Then the next wave included those who went to the West (primarily UK and US and later Canada) post India independence in 1947 and much later (1980s) to Australia and New Zealand to study and decided to settle down establishing communities. And the final wave were/are those laborers who from the 1970s went to Gulf countries, some of whom are permanent settlers (although Gulf countries don’t give blanket citizenship to outsiders) and some who travel back and forth between India and the Gulf as contracted workers. More recent diaspora locations have been established in other parts of Asia (like Japan), Europe (Austria, Scandinavia, Germany, Portugal, etc.), South America (Peru, Brazil, Colombia, etc.), Africa, etc. And there is also movement of Indians from the Caribbean or South America to North America and Europe; for example, over half a million Indo-Caribbeans make heir home in North America and over a hundred thousand Indo-Caribbeans make their home in Holland and a further 70,000 are in the UK having started migrating there since the early 1950s. As can be discerned from the foregoing, the Indian diaspora process (movement) is dynamic and their presence in the noted locations has experienced continuous movement. Also, there is migration back and forth between India and the diaspora host society and even trans-migration among the diaspora countries themselves. For example, Indo-Guyanese have been migrating to St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Grenada, Antigua, etc. since the 1980s and from there some moved on to North America. Also, since the 1970s, Indo-Guyanese began migrating to Surinam, French Guiana, and Venezuela and from there they have migrated to Holland, France, and North America. Many Indo-Guyanese and some Indo-Trinis and Indo-Surinamese are settled in Aruba, Curacao, St. Martin, etc. with some finding their way to the Netherland and France. Many Indo-Trinis and Indo-Guyanese who migrated to the UK during the 1950s thru the 1980s have moved to the US. So the Indian diaspora process is not static like that of say the Irish or Italians or Germans in America. Rather the Indian diaspora process is dynamic and complex and evolving constantly undergoing change with Indians found in almost every country.

The Indian diaspora is huge, estimated at over 31 million people and is found globally with some countries having only a few hundred (East European and some South American countries) while others have thousands (Austria, Scandinavian countries, St. Lucia, etc.) and yet others hundreds of thousands (Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam) or millions (USA). The diaspora also includes those Indians who were/are citizens of Fiji, Mauritius, Africa, the Caribbean, etc. and those who migrated from those countries to Europe or North America or Australia and New Zealand. In These societies, they have established their own communities as Indo-Caribbeans, for example, in America, UK and Canada or Indo-Surinamese in Netherland. Indo-Fijians have established communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, British Columbia, Toronto, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, etc. And there is an Indo-Mauritian community in the UK. The diaspora is indeed very complex and diversified by religion, caste, and region (Gujaratis, Punjabis, Sindhis, Tamils, Bengalis, etc.) in India with each community having its own politicking and issues.


  1. Achievements of the Diaspora:

Residing in distant lands from India, members of the diaspora have succeeded spectacularly in their chosen fields of endeavor and professions by dint of their single-minded dedication and hard work to achieve objectives. Some have attained international acclaim like VS. Naipaul who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sir Shridat S. Ramphal who became the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, and Shashi Tharoor who became a Under Secretary General of the UN. Politically, some Indians have become Presidents and Prime Ministers far from the land of their forefathers since the early 1950s. Dr. Cheddi Jagan became the Chief Minister (1953) and subsequently Premier of British Guiana (1957) and later Executive President of Guyana (1992), the country where Indians migrated to between 1838 and 1917 to rescue bankrupted sugar plantations. Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo served as President between 1999 and 2011 of Guyana. Donald Ramotar succeeded him in 2011 thru 2015. Moses Nagamootoo became Prime Minister of Guyana May 2015 and continues to serve in that position. Basdeo Panday served as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago between 1995 and 2001. Kamla Persad Bissessar was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago between 2010 and 2015. Indians also served as head of state or government in other countries like Fiji, New Zealand, Singapore, and Surinam. Many Indians also serve as Ministers (cabinet rank) or Vice Ministers (Secretaries) and Permanent Secretaries of Ministries of governments or as Mayors of major cities of several countries including South Africa, UK, US, Grenada, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Malaysia and Singapore, among others. An Indian led the US AID agency. Indians served as Ambassadors of several countries including the US and Canada and at the United Nations (New York), UNESCO (Paris), UNOG (Geneva) and other world organizations. Diaspora Indians have held ranking or influential positions around the globe and almost all of these Indians have expressed pride in their heritage and culture and also champion issues beneficial to India.


  1. Diaspora Patriotism and Asset in India’s Development:

Although they are not directly from (born in) India, Indians in the diaspora (regardless of nationality or passport) have been (are) viewed (labeled) as ethnic Indians and as coming from India even though they may be fourth or fifth or sixth generation of Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, etc. Indians (even Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepali, Maldivians, etc.), cannot escape their ethnic identity and are so defined and labeled. Because of their identity, they are reviled or exalted and skills highly prized; they are very often targeted for hate crime and or praised for their varied contributions to the society where they have settled. Their culture is extolled. American politicians, in particular, routinely praise Indian Americans and Indo-Caribbean Americans for their immeasurable contributions to American society in all fields of endeavor and their ancient civilization.

It is indisputable that the Indian diaspora is very patriotic towards their ancestral homeland and they have made immeasurable contributions to their ancestral homeland by sending hundreds of billions of (US) dollars in remittances over the last several decades, lobbying on its behalf, investing in India, visiting India as tourists and discovering their roots, engaging philanthropy, funding various charitable projects, and generally advocating on behalf of India. Even though they are emotionally attached to India and also have been sending back huge remittances to and or investing in their ancestral country over many decades, it is only over the last three decades that India actively began courting the diaspora as a source of investment and for their technical skills. Around 1990, for example, India floated bonds in the US for capital investment; many Indians purchased bonds the proceeds of which were used for capital structures in the ancestral homeland. Ditto in the late 1990s when the US sanctioned India (blocking loans from international lending institutions) for testing nuclear weapons – the diaspora purchased Indian development bonds. Indian leaders when visiting the US, Canada, and UK appealed to the diaspora to lend a helping hand in the development of their ancestral homeland. Also, during the early 1990s, Indian leaders courted wealthy overseas businessmen for investment in the mother country. Prior to that, the diaspora was primarily valued for its remittances and for efforts at influencing the policies of Washington and London favorable towards New Delhi especially as it related to US arming of Pakistan (following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979) and Pakistan’s training of terrorists to foment instability across the border. The Indian diaspora lobbied the UK and American governments to limit the arming of Pakistan which was known to use the arms against India.

The diaspora’s investing in and lobbying for India from their overseas locations were done because of their attachment to mother India. The Indian diaspora, especially where they have large communities, have retained their emotional, cultural and spiritual links with the country of their origin. India felt that the strong ties to India by the diaspora would be a valuable asset in its developmental objectives especially that they control large amounts of wealth (savings) abroad that can be invested in India. In addition, the diaspora possesses a solid source of expertise in so many (scientific and technical) fields as well as on the politics of countries they have lived in for decades. And they have acquired large amounts of wealth through their business acumen and professional expertise which could be invested in India for a higher rate of return than in their countries of domicile. India was starved of capital resources to finance development projects. With emotional and cultural ties to India, the Indian government felt it could tap into the resources (capital, skills, political connection, etc.) of the diaspora to advance India’s development.

Also, it did not go unnoticed to India that China had been courting her large diaspora since the early 1980s as it moved away from a socialist to a bourgeois economy. In so doing, China was attracting tens of billions of dollars in investment annually since the mid-1980s that allowed it to have the fastest growth rate of almost ten percent annually for some two decades, and in so doing has become the second largest economy. India felt it could similarly benefit from her large diaspora. Diaspora was a development resource and India slowly began to see her diaspora as potential investors and funders of infrastructure projects in India to transform her socialist economy. Beginning in the late 1980s, India began to change her position with regards to how she had seen her diaspora – from previously as senders of remittances or as a burden that was seeking India’s attention and resource to now being potential developers and promoters of a modern India.

There is no doubt that the huge Indian diaspora is an asset not only to the countries where they reside but to India as well. The diaspora’s enormous wealth, status in the domiciled countries, positions in government, educational achievements, technical skills, manpower, presence in professions, and political lobbying power are all assets that can transform any economy and indeed the diaspora has added to the wealth of the countries where they are domiciled. And the Indian government has recognized the potential of the diaspora in helping India with her developmental goals as well as the development of their own host countries. India began to engage and court the diaspora for mutual benefit.

Although they are of different nationalities, the diaspora has one thing in common – their ethnic identity tracing their origin to and pride in Mother India – and embracing Indian cultural values (dance, music, song, food habits, etc.). Overseas Indians are proud of their origin not different from how overseas Italians or overseas Irish or other overseas ethnic communities are proud of their ancestral homeland. And as other groups do in the US or Canada, for example, diaspora Indians publicly display their patriotism towards their ancestral homeland celebrating various national days with various cultural events.