The potential of Indian culture is largely unexploited in India's Diaspora Policy: Dr. Els van Dongen


Apart from removing institutional obstacles that prevent people from engaging in FDI, I believe a clear outreach program is needed that explains why FDI would be a better option than remittances, says Dr. Els van Dongen, Researcher at  Nanyang Technological university, Singapore. In an interview with the GRFDT team, Dr. Dongen shared her views on diverse issues of two biggest diasporas in the world- Indian and Chinese.

Q-1. Dr. Smita Tiwari: Welcome to this interaction. Dr. Els your work is on comparative diaspora policies in India and China.  While engaging their diaspora, which country do you think has used a better institutionalized approach, China or India?

First of all, I would like to emphasize that the institutionalization of the Indian diaspora policy in the context of economic reforms only goes back to the beginning of the twenty-first century, which means it is a very young policy, whereas the institutionalization of China’s diaspora policy since its economic reforms goes back to the late 1970s, which implies the policy has had more time to grow. Hence, when comparing the two, we have to take into account this time difference. It should also be noted, however, that diaspora policies existed long before in both cases, but we are talking about institutionalization in the context of economic restructuring here.  

Institutionally, the main difference between the two is that China not only has an institution, namely the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO), directly under the main executive organ, but that it also incorporates commissions under legal and consultative bodies, as well as two voluntary organizations and two research institutes. The Indian policy works mostly through the Ministry of Overseas Indians, in collaboration with other ministries. In addition, there is a big numerical difference. The OCAO has a staff of around 120, whereas MOIA only has about 20 staff. That being said, the Indian model is based on an institution at ministerial level, which means funding is secure; it has identified certain core areas and has created specific sub-organs; its consular services are integrated into the system, and it has also set up extensive research collaborations with universities abroad.

 I would say that it is not a question of who has a “better” institutionalization, not only because of the temporal difference mentioned, but also because of the different nature of the diasporas. In India, given the high number of low-skilled migrants in the Gulf, there is a strong focus on the regulation of emigration and labor abroad. A lot of work has been done in this and other core areas, but given the increasing numbers of Indian students abroad (the largest group after Chinese students), I believe institutionalization in this area in particular still needs to be increased.

Q-2. Dr. Mahalingam: What are the suggestions for India’s diasporic policies to improve Foreign Direct Investment?

Historically, the Indian model has been mostly based on remittances, NRI deposits, and philanthropic donations. Even after the reform policies of 1991, changes have been rather slow (between 1991 and 2003, diasporic FDI only amounted to around 4 percent of total FDI). It is not only a matter of changing policies, but also of changing the mindset of the Indians Overseas. Apart from removing institutional obstacles that prevent people from engaging in FDI, I believe a clear outreach program is needed that explains why FDI would be a better option than remittances. As the Ministry currently divides its services into the categories of general diaspora services, emigration, financial services, and management, this outreach could be done through its financial services section. The role of the Overseas Indian Facilitation Center (OIFC) could be strengthened here, and another important aspect would be to improve ties with business networks abroad.

However, we should keep in mind that the Chinese and Indian economies are fundamentally different in nature (manufacturing versus services) and that the Chinese in Southeast Asia in particular had built up not only an enormous wealth but also vast networks by the time of the start of economic reforms in China, which means we have to be a bit skeptical when comparing Chinese and Indian FDI. At the same time, however, the Chinese example clearly reveals the importance of business networks, and they still play an important role in Chinese diaspora policies.


Q-3. Dr. Sadananda Sahoo: What is the role of diaspora institutions and forums in shaping diaspora policies? For example, there are several diaspora organizations abroad, such as GOPIO. How do they influence the government policies?

Although hitherto no systematic study of Chinese and Indian diaspora policies has been undertaken, some articles on the political influence of Chinese and Indian diaspora communities exist, particularly with reference to the United States. The Indian diaspora is more influential in this respect than the Chinese diaspora is. As for political influence, on the one hand, there is the role of diaspora groups in international relations. The most famous example concerns the role of the Indian diaspora with regard to recent nuclear agreements between the United States and India. In 1999, the Indian-American lobby also exerted pressure in the Kargil conflict. In the United States, Chinese communities have also increased their lobbying activities in recent decades, for example in the case of supporting unconditional most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for China in 1996.

 As for the political influence with regard to their respective governments and diaspora policies, both the Chinese and Indian diasporas act as pressure groups. In the Chinese case, this has happened with regard to the question of dual citizenship in particular. Naturally, the amount of pressure diasporas can exert depends on a number of factors, including the political system and the type of government involved and the level of organization of the diaspora. In China, although the debate on dual citizenship was started more than a decade ago, no concessions have been made. The political integration of diasporas is a sensitive and complicated issue, as it touches upon the core element of nation-states, namely the territorial basis of sovereignty.

Q-4. Dr. Mahalingam: Can you highlight some aspects of soft power diplomacy. Do you think India still need to do much?

In this particular area, the Chinese policy is much more thorough. The active promotion of Chinese culture is an important element of Chinese diaspora policy and of Chinese policy overall. The clearest example of China’s soft power diplomacy are the Confucius Institutes that have been set up in the last decade in particular. Although Indian culture is promoted to a certain extent in the Indian model in the form of the cultural program of the yearly Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) and the mini-PBDS, as well as through the magazine India Perspectives of the Ministry of External Affairs, it is clear that the potential of Indian culture is largely unexploited.

Q-5. Rajiv Mishra: While talking about protection of their citizens abroad, the Chinese have done a better and prompt job than that of India. In the case of the Cairo crisis, the Chinese government took very prompt action in evacuating their citizens as compared to the Indian government’s  response to their citizens. Chinese government provide better security to their citizens as compared to India. Indian government’s response to its diaspora is more uncertain but in the case of China, the response is more definite. See the case of Indian corporate case GMR in Maldives Airport contract. The same matter could have been different in the case of China. What is your view on this?

Dr. Mahalingam: Yes, I also agree with what Rajiv says. The Indian Government could not do much in protecting the diaspora interests. This is evident in the case of Fiji, Malaysia and Uganda. What is your opinion?

I believe it is hard to draw a general conclusion from this one case with regard to the protection of Chinese citizens abroad. There is always a discrepancy between theory and practice, the latter which is often restrained by the realities of international relations. In theory, the Chinese government has always been committed to the protection of its citizens abroad. However, its foreign policy is also based on the so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (Panchseel), which includes non-interference in internal affairs. Especially in Southeast Asia, where the question of the Chinese overseas is a sensitive issue for historical reasons, this has resulted in non-action in some cases. I believe the Indian examples mentioned need to be understood from a similar angle, namely in the context of the complex realities created by the history of decolonization and the basic principles of India’s foreign policy.

In recent years, the Chinese state has been more active in protecting the Chinese overseas through diplomatic mechanisms, and the Cairo case illustrates this, but I also agree that in those cases where a sensitive history is involved, more could be done to put pressure on governments through international institutions and mechanisms.

Q-6. Suraj Beri: While conceptualizing the ‘nation’, one encounters the problem of several other sub-national identities- sikh diaspora, tamil diaspora, Kashmir diaspora etc. which are competing with the umbrella identities (of Indian diaspora). The term Indian diaspora cannot forcefully be imposed on people. How do you relate the Indian diaspora in your talk on (Re)framing the Nation?

I agree that there is an incredible diversity in the case of India. However, one should not forget that the question of sub-nationalities also exists in China. As mentioned before, in fact, it exists in every nation-state. The reason why it is interesting to study the diaspora policies of China and India is precisely because the “nationless state” is confronted with the same challenges that it faces on its territory on an extra-territorial level. It has to strike a balance between the unity of one “diaspora” (a term that is in itself a political construct designed to create this sense of unity) and the diversity that exist within this diaspora. In the Indian case, this diversity is certainly acknowledged in the form of, for example, institutions at state level and tailored policies.

At the same time, however, the diasporic nation is often defined in contradictory terms, which also has to be understood in the context of the history of Partition. The term Person of Indian Origin (PIO), for example, suggests descent as the main criterion for inclusion, but this is in fact restricted by territorial factors. Also, the inclusive term “diaspora” in reality excludes the less economically successful and privileges the “new” diaspora in industrialized countries, thereby excluding members of the indentured labor diaspora. These elements all need to be considered carefully and more conceptual clarification is needed.


Els van Dongen received her Ph.D. from the Department of Chinese Studies, Leiden University (the Netherlands). She obtained her M.A. and B.A. degrees from the Department of Chinese Studies, University of Leuven (Belgium), and a post-graduate degree in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Leuven.  Her research interests include the history, historiography, and intellectual history of modern China, with a special focus on intellectual debates of the 1980s and the 1990s. She is currently working on Chinese and Indian diaspora policies from the angle of national identity and changing conceptions of the nation.


Interview Date:   Saturday, Dec 22, 2012
Person Name:   Dr. Els van Dongen

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