The nondescript town of Buxar, in Bihar, is infamous in history for being the waterloo of those in power—it was near Buxar that Humayun lost to Sher Shah Suri in 1539; and it was here too, in 1764, that the triple alliance of Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, Bengal ruler Mir Qasim, and Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula of Oudh was vanquished by the soldiers of the East India Company. The people of Buxar must be hoping though that a defeat is not on the cards for at least one ruler. Earlier this month, one of their own, from the village of Bhellupur, came calling, winging in all the way from Trinidad and Tobago, of which she is the prime minister—the first woman to attain the august post in the Carribean island’s history.
Buxar celebrated this rare tryst with a reigning power, as PM Kamla Persad Bissessar met her relatives. With tears rolling down her cheeks, Bissessar announced, “The granddaughter of the soil has returned.” And what a voyage it has been for her. It was in 1889 that her grandfather, Ram Lakhan Mishra, boarded the Volga in the Calcutta port as a girmitiya, or indentured labourer. In 2012, his granddaughter had returned to her roots, a living testimony to the history of dislocation the colonial rule spawned, as also to its ironies—imagine what she would have been had her grandfather remained in Bhellupur.
But Bissessar isn’t an exception to the story of Indian migration, forced or otherwise, to distant lands. Her predecessor Basudeo Pandey too had what can be called girmitiya origins. Closer to home, in Singapore, S.R. Nathan defied his impoverished background to become his country’s longest serving president. It is to celebrate these stories that successive Indian governments have, since 2003, been holding the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, to which are invited People of Indian Origin (PIOs). Not just politicians, but also luminaries from different fields as well as those who migrated out of India of their own accord in more recent times. For the record, the Indian diaspora is now over 25 million, spread over 189 countries.
But what dividends does India reap in celebrating the PIO jamboree? Senior government officials say the sheer size, spread and depth of overseas Indians mean many of them are public figures who command a large following. Since their origin is a defining aspect of their identity, they function as brand ambassadors for India, help it build bridges with their countries of residence, promote its interests, and portray the “correct” perception about it being a modern, democratic and secular society.
Officials also describe them as the “knowledge diaspora”, or a people who together command a vast reservoir of knowledge, which can help catalyse entrepreneurship and innovation, social development and the emergence of new cultural narratives. “In short, overseas Indians bring the world to India and take India to the world,” Vayalar Ravi, minister for overseas Indian affairs, tells Outlook: “The common thread that binds them with the country of their origin is Indianness.”
Though Indians have been footloose over several centuries, the phenomenon of migration received a fillip under the British. Millions were taken as indentured labourers to British colonies after the 1830s, following the abolition of slavery in the Empire. Among the primary destinations were Burma, Ceylon and Malaya nearby, as well as distant Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji. Substantial numbers also went to Dutch and French colonies in Reunion Island, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mauritius and Suriname. There was also a distinct geographical pattern to the migrations—Burma, Ceylon and Malaya mostly hosted people from geographically proximate regions of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. People from Bihar and UP went to distant lands of the Caribbean, Fiji and Mauritius; and those from Gujarat and Punjab found themselves in South Africa.
The second wave of migration was the “free” or “passage” movement of traders, clerks, bureaucrats and professionals, mostly to East and South Africa and, in smaller numbers, to the other British colonies which already had a population of indentured labourers from India. This continued till the first half of the twentieth century. Post-war reconstruction, and the ensuing acute shortage of labour, attracted unskilled and semi-skilled workers from Punjab and Gujarat to the United Kingdom.
The third wave of migration, from the 1960s onwards, was sparked by sharp increase in oil prices and the resultant economic boom in the Gulf and West Asia coupled with the liberalised immigration policy in the UK in 1965. Millions left India over a period of a decade or so. The large demand for IT professionals in the late 1990s saw a tide of migrants washing up on the shores of the United States. A mere 13,000 in 1960, the Indian population in the US had jumped to 2.8 million by 2007.
Following the 1998 nuclear test, New Delhi woke to the increasing clout of Indians in the US, UK and Canada. In them, the government found interlocutors willing to convince the governments of their adopted countries about India’s case. The other factor was the ideological affinity many of them had with the BJP-led coalition, which took to tapping the diaspora in a more meaningful manner. Its successor government, the UPA, too realised the benefits of courting the diaspora, and underlined the sheer importance of PIOs through the creation of a separate ministry.
But, as usual, between idea and reality, there always falls a shadow. Devesh Kapur, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, feels India’s ability to take advantage of the diaspora is limited. As he tells Outlook, “The Indian diaspora’s intellectual capital matters little if the country’s higher education policies are in such a shambles or if the bureaucracy is impervious to attracting talent from outside; its financial capital matters little if investments in the country are hostage to high transaction costs; and its cultural capital matters even less if the Indian state is so feckless that it would rather given in to bigots than protect artists.”