The long history of Indian migration to places far from India has led to a situation where Indians are now found in most parts of the world, in various states of being. In a few places, such as Indonesia and Thailand they have been assimilated to the point of near-indistinguishability; in some they have become an integral if contested element of the host country because of the size of the community (eg East Indians in Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji). In East Africa, they are long-standing communities without a great deal of assimilation; in still others, such as the gulf, the white commonwealth and the United States, they represent economic migrants of various social and economic classes. There are other categories; these examples are intended solely as illustration of the great variety of what can be called NRIs and PIOs (‘non-resident Indian’ and ‘people of Indian origin’ respectively).
The modern story of Indian immigration overseas begins with the colonial period and the demand for labour following the abolition of slavery. Indenture, a system of labour-contracting that came close to slavery but retained the fiction of free labour, sent thousands of Indian men and women to the West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji, Malaysia and other plantation states in the British empire. Many of those who went abroad were low caste agricultural workers from contemporary Bihar and Tamil Nadu. They would not have thought of themselves as ‘Indian’ but rather as Maithili speakers or members of particular castes as they left the shores of India. When they reached their destination, they had received any number of epithets, ‘hindoos’ and ‘coolies’ being only two.
To this well known form of migration has to be added the travels of merchants and their families, especially from the west coast of India, sailors and shippers, civil servants, religious figures and pilgrims, who could be found from the Caribbean to South Africa to Malacca. The British empire initiated a new form of movement in their use of the Indian army as an imperial counterinsurgency and military police force, from Africa to Europe, where Indians distinguished themselves in two world wars. These groups were not necessarily migrants, though some did stay behind in the places they visited, but their travels and presence helped establish the idea of Indians as a transnational category, roughly similar to, though on a smaller scale, the idea of the overseas Chinese. Even before the idea of ‘India’ was fully established in the territorial domain of the country, the idea of the Indian overseas was a meaningful category that included Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Muslims, Christians and others.
The importance of overseas Indian populations in the national anti-colonial struggle has not received its full due in historical literature. After all, the most distinguished Indian leader of the struggle for political independence owed no small part of his rise to political awareness to his experiences as a diasporic lawyer in pre-apartheid South Africa. On his return to India, among the first mass actions Gandhi undertook, in 1921-22, to try and mobilise the Muslim community was around an event far removed from Indian soil, namely, the fall of the caliphate after the rise of the young Turks. Working in a climate that was quite internationalised, and not yet territorially determined, it was possible to raise passions that could be called anti-colonial around this seemingly confessional issue.
Awareness and interest in the Indian overseas population, or diaspora, does not end with the arrival of Gandhi. From the 1920s onwards, the Congress Party – even more than the Communist Party of India — raised the issue of the condition of labour and political rights of overseas indentured labour and emigrants at every annual meeting. The colonial Indian government did respond, and these pressures often led to trouble in London with (British) representatives of the Indian government facing off against the representatives of the dominions of Canada and South Africa in particular. Whether via popular reactions to the recommendations of Ceylon’s Donoughmore Commission, whose implementation resulted in the Tamil minority being completely swamped by the majority Sinhala in the 1931 state council elections, or the state executions of labour leaders in Malaya, Indians overseas were part of the larger imagination of a nation still coming into its own.
That is why it came as quite a shock following independence when the Congress, in power, made it quite clear to its overseas diaspora that it could not expect to call on a ‘right to return’. The emigrants were informed that they should make their peace with their local communities and seek to settle down in Ceylon, Malaya or anywhere else. Indian nationalism was being exclusively defined around territory. The difficulties with this definition were at once visible with Indians in Ceylon. Negotiations between an increasingly chauvinist Ceylonese government and its Indian counterpart dragged on for years; the compromise forged by the Sirimavo-Shastri agreement of 1964 finally forced one million ‘estate Tamils’ (Tamils of relatively recent migration who were primarily employed as plantation labour) to be repatriated, as long as it was understood that this created no precedent for a ‘right to return’.
Bypassing the queue
The turbulent economic climate of the 1970s and 1980s helped to establish the idea that the non-resident Indian population was an economic resource of considerable potential. From the 1970s onward, the growing importance of remittances from the Persian gulf states forced the Indian state to recognise the potential value of overseas Indians, even if they were often uneducated, largely Muslim, and primarily from the labouring classes. Yet, notwithstanding the importance of these funds, and precisely because of the social background of the gulf migrants, the policy of the state did not change substantially. It was only with the emergence of middle class success stories in the West, such as Sam Pitroda who came back to India with the telecom revolution up his sleeve, and Swraj Paul (now knighted), that the idea of the NRI began to take root. The NRI was seen as the Indian equivalent of the overseas Chinese: a potential source of foreign direct investment and technology transfer. With the growing wealth of overseas engineers, scientists and doctors, a group of individuals whose skills had been largely provided by subsidies from the Indian taxpayer, it was felt that the motherland had a reasonable expectation of some return on investment. Little, however, was forthcoming from these middle class, upper caste migrants in the US and Europe until the information technology boom of the 1990s when a new class of computer specialist, often hailing from urban lower middle class and agrarian India, began to take up residence in the West. While gulf remittances continue to matter enormously, the recognition given to those migrants falls far short of the overwhelming attention paid to the US-based NRI, whose primary interest in India, to the extent it exists, appears to be in building temples and supporting cultural ventures.
Until the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, nothing really changed. However, the rise of the BJP was intimately related to overseas populations in a number of ways. Apart from overseas financial support, the Hindu revivalist message of the BJP and its ‘family’ was sharpened and strengthened through its overseas connections. For instance, many scholars have remarked upon a contradiction inherent in Hindutva — a majority population that represents itself as a beleaguered minority in order to increase its strength against those who are objectively weaker than it. This message bears particular force overseas, where Hindus are a minority, and where cultural anxiety about the reproduction of religious or traditional values acquires new force.
While earlier generations of migrants and contemporary gulf residents might have wanted the Indian state to offer them greater protection of their human rights, NRI populations in the West do not seek the same guarantees. Rather, the primary motivation behind their political efforts in aid of the Indian state seems to be the desire to hold dual citizenship. While the government made an early and poorly managed effort to respond to this desire via its PIO scheme, few were willing to pay the exorbitant fee for uncertain benefits, which included separate lines at immigration counters in Indian airports. Queues in India being what they are, this was still hardly compensation for shelling out USD 1000 per family member. The relatively well-off middle class NRI, who is the most articulate proponent of dual citizenship, seeks a means to protect his property rights in India, to repatriate his foreign currency, and to be recognised as Indian provided he can hold onto the foreign visa-free passport acquired with no small difficulty. This is, by the same token, a desire of the newly landed immigrant rather than succeeding generations, no matter how Indian they may feel themselves. It has not been recognised that the particular urgency with which dual citizenship is now being called for will pass, to be replaced with a more pragmatic conception of a passport as a means to move, not unlike the maritime flag of convenience – buy the flag of another country, escape taxation and regulations.
Now that we have heard that the government will award dual citizenship only to Indians from seven countries, the question of who is being excluded acquires great force. Earlier generations of migrants to the Asia-Pacific region and to the Caribbean are not included in this dispensation, but Indians living in the white commonwealth and the US are. The gulf migrants – still the single largest source of remittances — are excluded. Although the Dr LM Singhvi High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora makes clear that economic nationalism rules its report — increasing the flow of hard currency funds to India and improving the image of India abroad – the most obvious source of funds, and the overseas Indians most in need of protection, are excluded from dual citizenship. It is difficult not to see a class-caste-religion hierarchy at work here, buttressed by the latest ‘security threats’.
There is much to be commended in the committee report, in particular its effort to map globally the scale of the Indian diaspora. However, in spite of its official remit, the report dares not ask the most basic and necessary question – ‘who is an Indian’ – yet provides answers to the question both in the decision to selectively award dual citizenship and in its almost comical invocation of national security concerns. The dangers associated with dual citizenship are well reflected in the report, where this recommendation is the only one in the 30-page executive summary printed in bold type. Most of the relevant paragraphs are dedicated to a discussion of how the dangers of dual citizenship may be avoided, including the dangers of terrorism. To quote: “The Committee made detailed recommendations [with regard to dual citizenship], being deeply conscious of the heightened security concerns following the series of terrorist attacks, especially the attack on India’s Parliament on December 13, 2001”. Dual citizenship is, in this sense, all about weighing possible economic benefits against the fear of letting in a terrorist.
It is barely worth mentioning that terrorists seeking to infiltrate India’s territorial space rarely do so via the mechanisms of international flights, immigration lines and dual passports. They sneak across borders after paying off border patrols, they get onto boats carrying drugs and gold across the gulf, they walk across tracts of land that have no sign that any country might lay claim to them; worse still, they may be produced within the body politic. What is the real security threat being invoked here? The only answer appears to be a problem of Indian political and constitutional history that has yet to be resolved: how to legitimately exclude Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – Muslims — from requesting Indian citizenship when they fulfil all other requirements for being Indians without invoking the rule of religion. It is no surprise that Nepalis, denizens of the ‘only Hindu kingdom’, are given free reign to wander all over India, while the Bangladeshi migrant is a dangerous infiltrator, potential terrorist and overall subversive, even though s/he may be engaged in extremely hard and poorly rewarded work that an Indian will not choose to do. The dual citizenship debate helps brings to the fore long-standing biases in Indian foreign relations and seeks to impose the latest artificial resolution to the unresolved question at the heart of the republic: who is an Indian?