Dimensions of Political Economy and Socio-Cultural adaptation built into the notions of Diaspora and transnationalism: Prof. R K Jain


 Prof. Ravindra Kumar Jain ( popularly known as Prof.R.K.Jain) is an internationally acknowledged scholar on diaspora studies whose work started much before the concept “diaspora” came to our lexicon of social science and public domain. He taught at Oxford University,  visiting scholar in various universities abroad and was at Jawaharlal Nehru University till his retirement. He is now prestigious Tagore National Fellow for Cultural Research in India. His recent book is on “Nation, Diaspora, Trans-Nation: Reflections from India” (Routledge, 2010). 

 He candidly speaks to Dr. Mahalingam M of GRFDT about various issues related to diaspora scholarship and its evolutionary trajectories, though specifically having focus on Indian diaspora.

What are the theoretical significance and policy implications of the study of Indian Diaspora?

I think that the theoretical significance emanates from the fact that it deals with overseas migration which goes beyond the nation in two directions. a) On the one hand, it is transnational b) on the other hand, sub-national. By transnational, I mean, the geographical location of Indian migration all over the world into six zones. By sub-national, one means that it is relevant to speak of Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu diaporas. One realizes this characteristic of diasporic migration. It is possible to compare historically and classically important human migration in time and space. Thus, we may compare Indian Diaspora with Chinese, Jewish, the Armenians and Africans etc., and in time, migration of Indian overseas especially to East Africa and Southeast Asia since third century A.D. The well-known Indian migration to work on plantations starts from 19th century, further on, post-colonial migration of entrepreneurs, information technology workers in the closing decades of 20th century and it continues till now. Policy implications of this comparative approach follow from the economic and geo-political aspects of contemporary overseas migration. Hence, we have dimensions of political economy and socio-cultural adaptation built into the notions of Diaspora and transnationalism.

What could be the reasons for growing popularity of the phrase ‘Indian Diaspora’ and the Indian communities living outside India in the academic discourse ?

The popular interest in Diaspora as migration and in cultural adaptability through multiculturalism and plural society is there, because, Diaspora constitutes an excellent case study of the processes of globalization. It is intrinsically connected with global markets, transnational communication and technological evolution of our times. The concept of Indian Diaspora as compared to the phrases ‘Indians Overseas’ and ‘Indians Abroad’ also signifies the global comparative dimension of diaspora studies.

What are the ontological underpinnings of the adaptation of the term ‘Diaspora’ to refer to Overseas Indians?

The term ‘Overseas Indians’ refers to a colonial context where the rise of India as an independent entity post 1947 was all important. In our own times, transnationalism has become the main feature of globalization. As such, we need to frame our understanding of global movement of human and capital resources in a framework which is partly South-Asian (not exclusively Indian) and actually global. By the latter term, I mean, Indian Diaspora is vertically connected with the Indian nation and horizontally related to areas wherever Indians migrated. In other words, we have not only once migrant Indians but twice and thrice migrant Indians, for example, Fiji Indians, Uganda Indians.

What are the epistemological implications when the discourse on Indian Diaspora is conducted in regional Indian languages?

The question of epistemology in the case of Indian Diaspora discourse in Indian languages is complex one. But its main thrust refers to what has been called ‘sub-national’ or ‘regional’   spread of diasporic identity. Let me explain. When the World Hindi Conference is held in Mauritius or International Tamil Association Meet in Malaysia, we have the manifestation of great tradition in regional Indian languages and culture. This even may have political implications. For example , the rise of nowvanquished LTTE among overseas Tamils. In other words, sub-national or regional cultural and linguistic identities when these are related to transnationalism enable us to make a jump for the region beyond the nation into a transnational arena. The arena is better termed ‘trans’ national rather than ‘inter’ national because not two but multiple national locations are involved.

Like many social science concepts, the phrase ‘Diaspora’ has also been borrowed from the West.  It has hardly been problematized in the Indian context. Please clarify this aspect?

As is well known, the derivation of the term ‘Diaspora’ is from the Jewish experience. As such, it carries overtones of persecution and marginalization of immigrant groups of diasporics. There is also another side of the coin where certain minority groups like the Scottish diasporics in Australia or British and Dutch migrants in South Africa although numerical minorities became politically dominant. In the Indian context, most diasporics have been underprivileged minority groups though in cases like Mauritius, Surinam and to some extent in Trinidad and Tobago, Indians have also been politically dominant. The question of Indian numerical dominance in the context of post-colonial emigration from India does not arise. In that sense, to the extent that by and large Indian diasporics remain minority groups in all countries of the world, the generalized sense of the Western meaning of the term ‘Diaspora’ is applicable to them.

It has been contended that there is a terminological problem with the usage of phrase ‘Indian Diaspora’. For those Indians who left India before partition and their descendants the reference point is ‘sub-continental India’, whereas for those leaving India after partition, the reference point is India as it is today. What is your comment on this?

The spatio-temporal point at which Diaspora takes place becomes an intrinsic part of their persisting identity. Thus, the PIOs( People of Indian Origin) who migrated before partition view themselves differently from the ones who followed them after the sub-continental partition. In fact, to understand these variations in the spatio-temporal location of diasporas, the concept of ‘referent origin’ has been proposed. The concept is useful when one is considering twice-thrice migrants spatially and at different points of time. Further, the concept ‘Diaspora’ for populations moving to-and-fro countries adjacent to India (e.g., Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan) is so complex as to be almost unusable. By this I mean that questions of legitimate and illegitimate migration as well as difficulties of regulating a visa regime come in the way of conceptualizing these trans-border movements that do not normally arise in overseas migration. The recent post-partition history of South Asian nation states has been responsible for this situation.

Indian Diaspora has been studied since long time by many scholars including you.  They did not use the term ‘Diaspora’, instead, they used the term ‘Overseas Indians’.  The use of ‘Diaspora’ for Indians abroad is of recent origin. Why is this so?

The recent origin of the concept Diaspora which is increasingly substituted for Indian overseas has to do with the current awareness and engagement with the process of globalization (I have already explained).

It is estimated that besides six million Indian citizens (NRIs), there are more than twenty million people of Indian origin (PIOs) all over the world.  Since Diaspora is considered as soft power, to what extent  India has utilized this soft power for improving its international relations?

It may seem paradoxical but to my mind, soft power impact of the old Diaspora (PIOs) seems to have greater potential for India’s future than the influence which NRIs( the Indian citizens abroad) will exert. The reason for this is the retention through challenge and response attitude of Indian resilience and values in the old Diaspora and the tendency to be blown over by indiscriminate modernization and consumerism in the case of NRIs. The materialism and opportunism of the NRIs may be usefully contrasted with the rootedness of values through thick and thin, adverse circumstances, in the old diaspora of the PIOs. Of course, many NRIs in countries like the USA face gender discrimination in government-rules regulated job market. But this again leads to what Hansen has called a “commodified nostalgia” for India rather than anything rooted in socio-cultural values. Therefore, in the very long term the soft power potential of the PIOs seems greater, more promising, than the ‘bubbly’ allegiances of the NRIs. The old Indian community of PIOs in a country like South Africa is a good example of the resilience I am talking about.

With globalization and rapid growth in the electronic media and information technologies, what Arjun Appadurai calls ‘Diasporic public spheres’ have emerged. How far this is true with Indian Diaspora? 

There has always been a public sphere in the Indian Diaspora, what the new information technology has done is to add to the locomotionary efficiency( for example, fast air travel) virtual speed (for example, the internet and telephone). The impact of these developments is being felt equally in the old and the new Indian diaspora. I am afraid scholars like Appadurai arealmost exclusively enamoured of developments in the New World and that also in the United States of America. There is also the bias towards big urban conglomerates in the writing of those who talk about the newly emerging diasporic public spheres studies in India. It goes without saying that the future of Indian youth is intrinsically tied up with globalization and transnationalism, and the study and research into Indian diaspora is a concrete and valuable case-study of these processes.

Do please comment on the recent attack on Sikh Indian Diaspora in the U.S.A?

The recent attack at Gurudwara in Wisconsin highlights to my mind  the appalling ignorance of socio-cultural factors in the general public in the very affluent state of middle America. However, I think that incidents such as this one will be fewer and less grotesque in the future, because, the spread of awareness of human rights and hopefully of global citizenship must make a difference to the evolutionary mind-set. As I have always maintained the globalization of infrastructures must accompany the globalization of mind.

How far are the concepts of ‘long distance nationalism’ and ‘the politics of belonging’ relevant to the study of Indian Diaspora?

 Longing and belonging are two dimensions of Indian identity in Diaspora. Belonging to India was a notion which held an appeal among Indian diasporics during Indian nationalist struggle that was the era of ‘long distance nationalism’. The post- independence India has seen the rise of the politics of belonging as among Indian diasporics in Fiji, Australia and Canada. The latter is much dependent on changing geo-political circumstances in relating Indians with their Diaspora.

What policy measures the Indian government can take towards the Indian Diaspora?

There are two clear socio-cultural policy implications.1) The regional diversity of India as represented in the Diaspora should not be a cause of worry for the Indian government because, in the Diaspora, it is a rich source of pluralism rather than conflict. This is because the socio, cultural diversity in Diaspora is not necessarily politicized as it is in India.2) I believe that the official distinction between PIOs and NRIS has outlasted its value .In the current era of globalization, this distinction fails to reflect major socio-cultural differences between the two categories ( I have deliberately  ignored or eschewed political implications of the policy towards Diaspora).

Please throw light on the concept of ‘social remittances’ to the ancestral land from Indian Diaspora?

The concept of ‘social remittance’ in relation to Indian Diaspora is of considerable relevance. It relates to philanthropy quite apart from family remittances, which diasporics make to home communities. It is also worth mentioning that what used to be called ‘brain drain’ should now be conceived as ‘brain bank’. This is because there is a circular movement between Diaspora and home territories.

 What do you suggest to scholars for broadening the debates and approaches to the study of the Indian Diaspora?

The entire field of Indian Diaspora cannot be painted in uniform colour. I think that there is an increasing need for multi-disciplinary collaboration in the field of Diaspora studies. Further on, the particularties and generalities of Indian Diaspora need to be strengthened through increasing comparative studies. The important modality of comparison would be cultural translation both vertically and horizontally in fields of Diaspora. I personally think that this approach would pay greater dividend than a typological approach.

What is your suggestion for the growth and expansion of GRFDT as research think-tank on Diaspora and transnationalism studies?

I welcome GRFDT initiative as the pioneering forum in India social science study where Diaspora and transnationalism have become the focus of young student researchers. Obviously, this is the most promising growth point for Diaspora




Interview Date:   Thursday, Aug 16, 2012
Person Name:   Prof. R K Jain

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