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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Diasporas: India and her PIOs

In 1957, Prime Minister Nehru of India said:
We have left it up to the Indians abroad whether they continue to remain Indian nationals or to adopt the nationality of whatever country they live in.  It is entirely for them to decide.  If they remain Indian nationals, then all they can claim abroad is favourable alien treatment.  If they adopt the nationality of the country they live in, they should associate themselves as closely as possible with the interest of the people of the country they have adopted...
A very clear statement indeed.  Having helped India achieve independence 10 years prior to this, the Indian diaspora (the "Indians abroad", a group of which Ghandi himself was a member at one time) was then informed that their nation was not overly interested in them and was not at all prepared to give them any recognition whatsoever, much less any help. At that time there were around 4 million PIOs, "People of Indian Origin", scattered all over the globe but living most in former British colonies.

Fast forward to 2003 and the very first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the "Day of the Indians Abroad" and the recognition by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani of the Vishwa Bharati (Global India), the "embodiment of India in the world".  Interesting enough many of the diasporans who attended this first ever celebration of the achievement of Indians abroad were not Indian nationals.   The tent, so to speak, had been broadened to include the PIO's, people who had roots in India but who were also citizens of other states.  The Indian government was proclaiming that it not only had an interest in these people but it claimed them for India regardless of their other affiliations.

What happened in those 50 years to change the Indian government's attitude toward "Overseas Indians" is the subject of Latha Varadarajan's book, The Domestic Abroad.  It's a fascinating tale and, as the member of another national diaspora struggling to achieve recognition, I read it with great attention.  The institutionalization of relations between the homeland and its diaspora is not obvious and depends greatly on history and an ever-changing political and economic context.

Before independence the Indian diaspora was useful in the sense that it was another resource to be used to win Indian sovereignty but its existence became rather troublesome very quickly once this was achieved.  At that time sovereignty was the primary concern and that meant control over a specific territory with distinct boundaries in which the state represents a nation.  Indian control over Indian territory was still quite new and perhaps a bit uncertain.  The diaspora did not fit well into this discourse.  Not only were these people not directly under the control of the Indian government, or physically present to build the new Indian nation-state, they were also the object of rather vicious discrimination in some of their host countries.  Was India obliged to intervene on their behalf?  A very hard question for a new state.  Hence, Nehru's rather cold but clear statement about how exactly the Indian government viewed its citizens abroad.

According to Varadarajan, change came slowly.  In part it was Indian emigration that changed the picture.  in the 1970's and 80's the flow of highly-skilled people out of India to places like the U.K. and the U.S. became a flood.  Another kind of migration, that of unskilled labor, was moving to the Middle East.  The first group was composed of highly-skilled professionals and the government worried about the "brain drain."  The second group was actually encouraged to leave in the hope that they would find employment in the Middle East and send back remittances to India thus solving two problems at once:  unemployment in the homeland and increased foreign capital coming in which was desperately needed.

Another factor that was important were the different economic crisis that the Indian government faced over the years (currency devaluations, foreign exchange crisis and so on).  There was a gradual opening of the economy in response to IMF and World Bank pressure.  It was in this context that the Indian government started looking toward its diaspora for relief.  In 1982 the government announced a "Non-resident Indian portfolio investment scheme" which was very controversial.  Not all Indians in the homeland were willing to accept PIOs as being "not so foreign" and thus legitimate investors in Indian enterprises. On the other hand, many of these Indian abroad had made substantial fortunes in their host countries and it seemed reasonable, and to everyone's benefit,  to tap into this. Varadarajan claims that it was at this time that attitudes really began to change, "The interchangeable usage of categories like 'Nonresident Indian' and 'Person of Indian Origin' is important because it enabled the blurring of distinctions based on rules of citizenship....making possible the constitution of the India diaspora as a unified social group, with a deep and abiding connection to the Indian nation-state."  From "foreign" to "not so foreign' to "one of us"  requires a series of mental leaps on the part of the government and the Indian people.  Leaps that would be inconceivable, in my opinion, to Americans in the homeland today when they look at their diaspora which is purely "temporary" of course - a neat bit of fiction that is used to justify the very "hands-off' position of the US government today.

The end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries ushered in some very concrete steps to institutionalize this relationship between the Indian homeland and the 20 million strong diaspora:  dual citizenship,  the "Day of the Indian Abroad," a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and other initiatives.

But what of the PIO's themselves in all this?  If I have one criticism of Varadarajan's book, it would be this:  it treats the Indians abroad as passive actors with all the action being on the side of the Indian government.  What was, in fact,  the reaction of the Indian diaspora in 1957 to Nehru's words?  How did Indians abroad react to government policies in the years between independence and India's rise in the early part of the 21st century?  Did they ever organize?  Did they form diaspora organizations to lobby the homeland? How did they react to the change in mentality - going from being perceived as a source of trouble to a source of investment?  And most important, is the Indian government's portrayal of them today as "a group that had a deep and abiding connection to the motherland" an accurate assessment of their feelings?  Hard to know but if anyone has any sources, I would be very interested.

I, of course, read Varadarajan's story of the Indian diaspora through the prism of my own experience as a member of another country's diaspora (or proto-diaspora if Sheffer is to be believed).  Clearly the United States is in a great deal of trouble today with very serious social and economic problems. Having portrayed the American diaspora as a source of vast untapped wealth held by disloyal people, the US government is attempting to appropriate some of their property and income earned in their host countries in order to make a dent in the huge budget deficit and support investment in jobs and infrastructure in the home country.  I have referred to this as the "Diaspora Tax War of 2012" and I think that does accurately describe the situation.  The actions of the American government are openly belligerent and hostile with no attempt whatsoever to negotiate or to appeal to the loyalties of the 6 million Americans living outside of U.S. territory.  It is nothing less than a war against its own people and will not, in my opinion, end well for anyone.

I would invite them to consider the actions of other governments - India is hardly alone in softening its stance toward its people abroad.  Mexico, France, China and many other countries have come to terms with their diasporas and expanded their definition of "us" to include those who choose to reside elsewhere.  As a result their nations have expanded, they have more power and influence in the world, they have citizens who are and remain loyal to their countries of origin and, I would contend, they have strengthened their nation-states, not weakened them.  In a globalized world with ever increasing international migration, this is not only prudent and intelligent policy, it is a winning strategy for the homeland and its diaspora alike.

Is it truly beyond the imagination of the American nation-state to envision a world where the boundaries of the United States of America expand to include "People of American Origin" as citizen-ambassadors, unofficial diplomats, and economic actors all working on behalf of the homeland? A source of rich diversity, a projection of "soft" American power far beyond its present boundaries, and a well of willing investment in the home country to create jobs and pull the nation up and out of its current woes?

I live in hope.


Eric said...

Before any country can treat the diaspora as "one of us", they have to define the "us". India had a much harder time with that than, say, Pakistan --- who, with wide popular support, defined their state as the protector of Islam in South Asia. The "us" was clear: South Asian Muslims, whether or not they had a connection to Pakistani territory. That let them be far more flexible than India on diaspora issues (especially regarding dual citizenship). A poignant illustration of this came in 1961, when Portugal tried to intern all the Indians in Mozambique (due to the invasion of Goa) and some Malayali Muslims, whose ancestral home is 2000 km south of Islamabad, got protection from the Pakistani consulate by naturalising as citizens and becoming part of the "Pakistani diaspora".

And when the "us" changes, things get ugly. Look at the Beijing vs. Taipei competition for the loyalty of the Chinese diaspora. In 1985, Taipei seemed to have won hands down. Then Taiwan became a democracy in 1987 and (to the extent possible under their constitution) started redefining "us" as "people from Taiwan" rather than "democratic Chinese people". The Chinese diaspora "nationals without household registration" got a very hard lesson in how flimsy their institutionalized connection to Taipei was: Taipei cancelled it unilaterally and made many of them effectively stateless.

I think something similar is going on the the US: homelanders are realising that their current definition of "us" is untenable. We expats have all grown up thinking we're part of the "proposition nation" of people who believe in democracy and the American dream of social mobility, and as long as we keep to this proposition in our adopted homes we're still Americans. But like Peter Spiro pointed out, the "proposition nation" self-definition could only last as long as democracy & social mobility were unique to America. Some homelanders simply shift their definition of "us" to "people settled in America", which naturally excludes expats. Others want desperately to stick to the existing definition of "us" as a unique proposition nation, but the very existence of expats forces them to deal with cognitive dissonance on that point.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Eric, Those are excellent points. I don't know the story of Beijing vs. Taipei but I am going to look into it. If you have a book or article about it, I'd love to have a recommendation. Yes, since nation-states can make any citizenship laws they want, they can certainly take away citizenship (or favorable conditions for obtaining it) just as they have the right to confer it where they wish.

I think you're right and the US position is really becoming untenable. The unlimited jus soli laws alone have the potential for real problems with other states. And another issue is how to manage the dramatic drop in the naturalization rates - people living in the US who choose NOT to become citizens. That doesn't fit the national myth either. The reactions of Americans in the homeland to this information and the figure of 6 million americans abroad is visceral. It makes them very unhappy and I often feel like a jerk for even mentioning it. There is a fellow in Costa Rica who has an organization called Americawave that you might find interesting. He's done studies of why Americans emigrate and he has a good post here
about the reactions he has received to his findings. I'll be doing a post about it soon since I find his work to be very interesting.

All the best,


Eric said...

Thanks for the link! Interesting blog. Leo Suryadinata's "'Overseas Chinese' in Southeast Asia and China's foreign policy" is quite good in general but has very little coverage of the Beijing-vs.-Taipei aspects of that relationship. The most in-depth English coverage about Taipei's policies towards the Chinese diaspora is probably in Jie Chen's book "Foreign policy of the New Taiwan". He devotes a chapter of about 40 pages to it: "Qiaowu: Kuomintang's historical cross as new Taiwan's asset".

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you very much, Eric, for the book recommendation. Alas there is no Kindle edition so it looks like I'll have to wait for it to arrive. I think I'm becoming very spoiled - I tend to get a bit frustrated if I can get a book instantly. :-)

Yes, isn't the America Wave site fascinating? The fellow who runs it is quite personable and very knowledgeable about American emigration - a subject he's been following seriously for some time. He has the first study I've ever seen about potential emigration. He also points to an interesting Gallup poll on this subject. I think his findings deserve much more attention than they are getting right now. The numbers are not huge but it's a bit disquieting to hear the kind of people that are choosing to leave the US with a lot of young, entrepreneurial types deciding that opportunity is to be had in Asia or South America as opposed to California.

.K. said...

Being an Indian, having lived in France, I have lots to add. In detail, very soon.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi K,

Oh please do - I'd love to hear your thoughts about France.


Anjuli said...

Dear Victoria,

Are you based in Paris by any chance? I am studying at Sciences Po, Paris and writing a paper on the attitude to the Indian Diaspora by the Indian Government. I would be very keen to chat with you if you are available.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Anjuli,

Thank you for stopping by the Flophouse. I'm not in Paris but very close (Versailles). I'd love to chat with you. Just send me an email: