Gandhi and Indian Diaspora

Author:   Ambassador J.C. Sharma


Gandhi and Indian Diaspora

Ambassador J.C. Sharma*

As a mass leader, Gandhi’s principles have always fostered communal harmony, international relations and understanding, and protest against colonial and racial discrimination. Diaspora too is yet another domain where Gandhi’s contribution and relevance cannot be overlooked. Gandhi has been one of the key figures in the making of Indian diaspora and so also the diaspora in the making of Gandhi. Gandhi’s major weapon of revolution “Satyagrah” was experimented in the diaspora (South Africa) and, at the same time, his satyagrah success story in India permeated to several diasporic countries across the globe.

Ironically, however, Gandhi has not been emphasized sufficiently in our theory and praxis of Diaspora as compared to other areas of discourse. It is in this connection, the study of ‘Gandhi and Indian diaspora’ owes its relevance today in order to discuss: Why Gandhi and Indian diaspora is so important? What is the significance of diaspora in Gandhi and vice versa? However, to understand the role of Mahatma Gandhi from diasporic perspective, we need to discuss various dimensions of his overseas life and contributions.

Gandhi’s South African Connection

After returning from London in 1891, and having law practice in Rajkot and Bombay, Gandhi went to South Africa with a contract of one year (Tendulkar 1951). While in South Africa, he learned that the Indians in Natal province were just about to lose their right to vote. For Gandhiji, the issue was not only the specific grievances of the Indians but their individual and national self-respect. The satyagraha here was a part of the struggle of India for its dignity, and a moral crusade, though waged on the South African soil. When, Dr. Y. M. Dadoo and Dr. G. M. Naicker, leaders of the passive resistance movement in South Africa, met Gandhiji on April 11, 1947, he confessed to them thus: "Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India..." (Item 233) Therefore, in 1928, commenting on a report that some Indians in South Africa favoured separation from Africans in education, Gandhiji wrote in Young India on April 5, 1928:  "Indians have too much in common with the Africans to think of isolating themselves from them. They cannot exist in South Africa for any length of time without the active sympathy and friendship of the Africans. . . . and it would be a tragedy if any such movement were to gain ground among the Indian settlers of South Africa." Thus, Gandhi’s South African experiment is a great message to the Indian diaspora elsewhere.

Gandhi in Mauritius

In 1924, as the President of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma referred to the inhumane treatment of the indentured Indians in Mauritius. Between the 1910s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi came in touch with several Mauritians such as R. K. Boodhun, P. Lutchmaya, J. N. Roy and B. Bissoondoyal. He encouraged them to work for the social, political and economic betterment of all Mauritians. During the past sixty years, there has been a rich and important tradition of celebrating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948). In October 2001, the centenary anniversary of the visit of Gandhiji to Mauritius was commemorated at a national level. Today, it is widely known and accepted among the Mauritians that the visit of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has had a long-lasting impact on their country’s history.

Gandhi and the indentured Indians in Fiji

Similarly in Fiji, Gandhi was very sensitive towards the indentured system as well as the ill-treatment of indentured laborers. As K. A. Ray observed “Historically, for almost 50 years after the beginning of indentured migration in 1834 neither the colonial government of India nor the general population had been particularly concerned about the maltreatment of Indian indentured workers abroad. It was only Gandhi’s threat of a nationwide satyagraha (passive resistance) which brought end to recruitment in 1917 (Ray 1993: 283). This resulted in the termination of indentured system in 1920. However, this incident became significant as C. Voigt-Graf observed that “once indenture was abolished, though, the mainstream of Indian national politics lost interest in the Indian diaspora” (2004: 185).

Gandhi as the social and political capital of Diaspora

Mahatma Gandhi is not just the face of modern India, but is the most influential icon for the diaspora today which cut across the communities and ideological barriers. As Mr. Vinay Lal observes, “Gandhi’s name evidently has cultural capital everywhere in the world. . .”  There are many research institutions, cultural centres, social organizations in the name of Mahatma Gandhi in almost all the countries having diaspora presence. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) have also complied with the diasporas’ demand for Gandhi’s presence through instituting institutions, installing statues and other forms of promotions. In Guyana, Cheddi Jagan is considered as Guyana’s Mahatma Gandhi.  The Mahatma Gandhi Institute Indian Immigration Archives is undoubtedly the largest repository documentation and photographic collection of the 19th Century Indian Indentured Labourers recruited in Mauritius.  Similarly, The Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Cooperation, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago is the platform for promoting India and diaspora relations.

Gandhi, Contemporary India and Diaspora

The High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora constituted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government of India also proposed to hold annual celebrations called “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas” in honour of the Indian diaspora to ensure its sustained interaction with India. The significance of Gandhiji again came to the forefront when the organizers decided to organize the event on the day of Gandhiji’s return from South Africa. Moreover, the recent anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in India also had its influence among the diaspora youth because of its Gandhian principles. The Dandi march of San Fancisco in support of Anna’s fast on April 9, 2011 and afterwards is quite significant. These NRIs had a 240 mile walk against corruption and urged for one-day fast in several cities across US.

With his multifaceted life, Gandhi has highly influenced different diaspora communities worldwide. In such a context it will not be out of place to consider Mahatma Gandhi the first person to integrate the scattered Indians world-wide. In fact, Gandhi has made the ‘Indian Diaspora’ more prominently be part of public interest in India. Thus Gandhi has been one of the monumental figures who will be always be part of the foreign policy, community life, cultural and political activities in India and abroad. He is the most important link between the mother country and her diaspora.


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*Former Member Secretary, High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora and Member Secretary of the Organizing Committee for the 1st and 2nd Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian Diaspora Day) celebrations, Email:  [email protected]


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