India's Diaspora Policy and Foreign Policy: An Overview

Author:   Dr. Mahalingam

There is a convergence of Diaspora policy and foreign policy due to the embedded role of Diaspora in the foreign affairs, says Dr. Mahalingam M*

Diasporas have emerged as powerful entities since they are recognized as ‘soft power’ in the realm of foreign policy strategy and also as an agent or catalyst of economic development of countries of origin beside their active role in the host countries. For instance, in the economic sphere, the Chinese Diaspora has been seen as a propelling force for its emergence as an economic super power. In the political sphere, the Jewish Diaspora has a strong grip over the US and European Union in terms of shaping their strategic relationship with Israel. Hence, Diasporas being transnational communities have become important non-state actors as well as deciding factors in international political and economic relations.

Due to globalization and liberalization of global economic system coupled with the rapid advancement of transport and communication technologies that have reduced time and space that have in turn intensified their socio-economic, political and cultural ties very stronger with their origin countries. Hence, not only have Diasporas attained due importance at the international level, but also in the domestic political and economic affairs of home countries than ever before. Eventually, they have emerged as an ‘inevitable link’ between their home and host lands along with major political and economic implications for both sides.

Indian Diaspora as a major component of global Diasporas is not an exception to concomitant developments that have been described above; it has increasingly become more influential over India’s foreign policy and has evolved as a strategic asset for India in the recent decades. Realizing its due role at various levels, India has been taking concerted efforts to engage and leverage upon its Diaspora, that has been roughly estimated about 25 million dispersed in 136 countries. Considering its size and expansion, it is aptly mentioned in the High Level Committee Report on Indian Diaspora by the Government of India, “The Sun never sets in the Indian Diaspora”. It is recognized that there is a convergence of Diaspora policy and foreign policy of a country due to the embedded role of Diaspora in the foreign affairs. However, the Diaspora policy of India has been sporadic and patchy because of lackadaisical approach and compulsion of deep linkages between Indian Diaspora policy and India’s foreign policy. 

Diaspora and India’s foreign policy: During   pre –independence period, though the focus of foreign policy lay with British interests, the then Indian government took earnest interest in terms of protecting the various concerns of the Indian Expatriates as they were ‘British subjects’ only living elsewhere in the British Empire. The Indian political elites had shown solidarity and shared their concerns with the Indian expatriates through deputations by the Congress delegates. In fact, the plight of Indians abroad was a major issue for the independence movement led by Indian National Congress. There was a remittance from the Indian labour migrants to their families back home. It can be argued that a symbiotic relationship existed between home and Diaspora which continued till 1947. After achieving independence in 1947, there was a paradigm shift in the position of Diaspora policy as a result of India’s foreign policy being guided by Nehruvian ideals of anti-imperialism and racial apartheid, respect for Sovereignty and non-alignment. On the economic front, India chose to follow self-reliance as its goal for economic development. The then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru categorically announced that ethnic Indians who chose to remain abroad would consider themselves as citizens or nationals of their respective host lands. In fact, they were encouraged to integrate with host culture and fight for the liberation of their adopted lands. After a lull, Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri entered into an agreement with Srimavo Bandaranaike to resolve the question of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, the Nehruvian trend was continued and extended to till 1980 by successive governments.

Later, in spite of a change of focus in the India’s foreign policy from Nehruvian idealism to realism under the regime of Indira Gandhi, there was no change of position in the Diaspora policy or the Indian economic foreign policy. In fact, she made herself particularly unpopular during the East African Indian crisis of 1968-1972. However, owing to oil shocks and Balance of Payment crisis, the government pushed for a remittance –centric approach especially for the Gulf Indians. Later, when there was a switch of foreign policy priorities from realism to inter- third world cooperation under the regime of Rajiv Gandhi, there was a slight shift in Diaspora policy as well. He offered his amicable support and tried to handle Fiji Indian crisis in 1986, which had strained our relationship with Fiji. Besides, having realized Indian Diaspora as a strategic asset, he invited Indian diasporic talents like Sam Pitroda to realize his vision of 21st century India and took administrative measures like the establishment of Indian Overseas Affairs department in 1984.At the same time, there were no constructive steps or consistent and clear-cut policies to deal or tap the overseas Indians until the coming of National Democratic Alliance government led by BJP.

After the end of Cold War, the emergence of a multi-polar centric foreign policy, a structural shift in the global economy and the relentless  foreign reserve crisis of Indian economy in the 1990s, facilitated the Indian government led by Narasimha Rao to announce  drastic economic reforms such as Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization (LPG). On the advent of  new economic model, the Indian  Diaspora  was able to participate in the plethora of economic opportunities of  the unregulated and open Indian economy.  It resolved the foreign currency crisis due to substantial investment and remittance from the Indian Diaspora. Subsequently, the Indian government changed its outlook towards Diaspora and reviewed its Diaspora policy. The NDA government led by BJP had initiated major steps to leverage upon the Indian Diaspora for economic growth and also as part of its larger vision of cultural nationalism. The Chennai Declaration of BJP shows its position on Indian Diaspora that:

We believe that the vast community of NRIs and PIOs also constitute a part of the ‘Great Indian Family’. We should endeavour to continually strengthen their social, cultural, economic and emotional ties with their mother country. They are a rich reservoir of intellectual, managerial and entrepreneurial resources. The government should devise innovative schemes to facilitate the investment of these resources for India’s all-round development (BJP News Report, 28th and 29th December 1999).

In the light of this, long and short term comprehensive policy measures were unveiled to engage its diverse Diaspora during its regime such as the appointment of High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, launching of PIO card scheme, organizing  annual Pravsi Bharatiya Divas on 9th January, giving out Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards, offering Dual citizenship (OCI) and so on. The subsequent UPA government established a separate Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs which has taken several initiatives for engaging the Diaspora. From the above discussion, one can understand the mutual influence of Diaspora policy and Indian foreign policy.

Diaspora and Foreign Policy Implications: The linkages between Indian foreign policy and Diaspora policy, has also had many positive and negative implications for India. In retrospect, during independence struggle, the Indian independence movement was deeply influenced them. Heeding to the clarion call of Indian leaders, they took a plunge in the alien soil for the liberation of mother India. The Indian expatriates like Adi Patel, Chhedi Jagan and Koya led the Indian freedom struggle and the political awakening in their respective settled countries. The starting of Gadar movement, forming of Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) and Komagata Maru incident had political impacts on India. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi who had come from Diaspora was a beacon of light for achieving political freedom for India. After independence, with a focus on Nehruvian high ideals in the realm of Indian foreign policy, the Indian Diaspora was not expected to play any political or economic development role for India. This position had political and economic implications. One of them was that India could not get involved when part of its Diaspora was going through political, economic or social discrimination or even a severe crisis. i.e. Burma, Sri Lanka and South Africa. The other drawback was that despite continuing informal ties of Diaspora with their families back home, they were encouraged not to part take in the economic development of independent India.

Later, in the wake of   globalization and radical structural changes in the Indian economy, India Diaspora was considered a viable and potential source to bail out the threatening foreign currency crisis of 1990s. The resumption of engagement with Indian Diaspora resulted in major implications on internal as well as external political and economic processes for India. US Indian community’s stupendous lobbying efforts were laudable in relation with the cracking of the Indo-US  Civil Nuclear Co-operation Agreement, defeating the Burton Amendment and justifying India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil war in1999. On various occasions, Indian Caucus on Capitol Hill and various other advocacy and lobby groups were instrumental in pushing India’s national and security interests forward.

The significant presence of diverse Indian community in the various parts of the globe has also had implications on India’s diplomatic relationship with many countries. The exploitation and ill-treatment of Indian workers in the Gulf countries has always been a cause of concerns in India’s relationship with those countries. The Sarita Chawla case is a classic example in this regard. During the First Gulf War, a large number of Indian migrants were forced to flee which resulted in reduction of remittance. It augmented the adverse Balance of Payment crisis for India in 1990s.The Iraq and Kuwait wars, the recent Libyan Crisis of North Africa accelerated implications on our foreign relations with the regions. Further, the recent controversy over the evacuation of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia posed major concerns over India’s diplomatic relationship.  The racial attack on Indian students in Australia also posed serious challenge and implications to India-Australia relations. Uneasy relationship between the Indian community and their respective governments have also led to deterioration of relationship. The Fiji Coup meant Indian diplomatic Mission had to be closed down. HINDRAF movement of Indians in Malaysia provoked reactions from both sides. The remarks of Radio Jockey in South Africa had also drawn some reactions from India. Subsequently, Indian Mission was directed to be in constant vigil between African and Indian communities. The ban on wearing turban by the Sikhs in France by 2004 gathered momentum  after global Sikh mobilization in support of French Sikhs in India and Diaspora. Under the pressure from global Sikhs as well as pressure from the Indian government notably under the new leadership of a Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, France decided to find a solution.

On the domestic front, during the declaration of emergency, the Indian Diaspora in US and UK had shown solidarity for anti emergency groups .They had been funding the state elections of Punjab, Gujarat, Kerala and Andhra. Owing to their enviable position in countries like US, UK and Canada, their parliamentarians were put pressure to consider their interests and concerns with the domestic affairs of India. The visit of foreign secretary JackStraw to Gujarat after riot in 2002 shows their active role when their community faces the threat of violence. Apart from political and foreign policy implications, the engagement with Indian Diaspora poses internal security implications as well.

Diaspora and Security Implications:   Diaspora groups can fund sub-nationalist or ethno-nationalist movements which either pose a threat to national security or challenge the territorial integrity of the nation state since diasporas are increasingly perceived to represent the ‘paradigmatic other of the nation state’ as well as‘long-distance nationalism’, as perceived by Benedict Anderson. The separatist movements namely Kashmiri, Khalisthan, and LTTE had received massive political, financial and material support from large sections of its Diaspora. Kaniska crash was the master mind of Canadian Sikh Diaspora. Through money laundering and hawala, they have been instigating riots and militancy in different parts of the country. The Gujarat Ayodhya  and Kandhamal riots, militancy in Kashmir and ULFA in North East India are  the classic case studies in this respect. Further, they also fund extremist civil society groups like RSS, jihadi groups and other extremist political groups for communalization and the growth of violence and religious fundamentalism in the country. The Indian migrants of Gulf countries are indoctrinated and transformed to sleeper cells. On their return, they carry out terror activities and spread the Wahabi ideology. The SIMI and Indian Mujahideen have been aided by diasporic groups in clove with eternal religious extremist groups to plot terrorist activities. The Diverse Indian diaspora is an easy target for the inimical forces of India like Inter-Service Intelligence(ISI), which uses them to destabilize peace and security in the country. In this regard, Headley and Tahavur Rana who were involved in Mumbai attacks of 26/11are well known cases. Being a part of global drug cartel, they also act as drug pushers in India given their connections. Having said that, Diaspora has vast economic implications on the origin country.

Diaspora and Economic Implications: Diaspora finance in the form of remittance and investment helped India to come out from its foreign reserve crisis and fuelled its economic growth. India has overtaken China in terms of receiving foreign remittance recently. Indian Diaspora has acted as mediators, as facilitators of international trade and investment, given the high profile of Indian entrepreneurs, technocrats and management consultants. The number of companies in IT and BPO are owned by Indian Diaspora is more than two hundred in 2000. The Indus Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley Bank had brought two delegations of Venture capital companies to explore potential investment opportunities. Some Venture capitalists of Indian origin in the US have funded Indian R&D companies who are likely to produce Intellectual Property and innovative products in the areas of wireless technology, semiconductor design technology.  West Bridge Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers and Norwest Venture Group are the best examples in this regard. Thus, they have been playing a very active role for India in becoming a knowledge based economy. In healthcare, they have established hospitals like Escorts, Medicity and Apollo for providing healthcare at par with global standards. Major Diaspora organizations are actively involved in the philanthropy activities in the different parts of India. In the field of education, they are setting up new institutions like India Business School in Hyderabad and several others that are being set up. No doubt, they have become an agent of economic development after structural changes in the Indian economy.

Indian Diaspora as a strategic Asset: The twenty million diverse Indian Diaspora, has enriched their profile with the help of acquired skills and inspiration from their civilizational values. Though they are heterogeneous, drawn from different historical and cultural contexts of migration, they are identified and held together by their ‘Indianess’ and a deep cultural and emotional attachment towards Mother India.  In fact, they are microcosm of India. They are indeed a tool for ‘soft power diplomacy’ for its retention of  cultural richness of India. They have been bridges, mediators, facilitators, lobby and advocacy groups for taking primacy of India’s’ national security and economic interests. The expertise of Indian academic intellectuals in various US  and  European Union universities  could be an asset for revamping our falling standards of higher education. India can harness upon its well-exposed diasporic youths and make them partners for raising India’s human capital. The East African Indian successful entrepreneurs who are key players in the global economy can be a spring board for India to play its role in the international trade. Many diasporic Indians are members of parliament in many countries who could be a liaison between their government and India.

Conclusion: One could argue that Diaspora policy and Indian foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. As discussed above, it is productive and counter - productive as well.  India is yet to utilize the potential of Indian Diaspora in its domain of foreign affairs. For instance, India has been demanding for permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but it has not been realized so far. Indian Diaspora can be utilized for achieving the long due aspirations of India. In the recent decades, the international migration of semi-skilled and high skilled Indians has seen an upsurge due to demand of  software Industry and  H1-B visa phenomena. A tangible and scrupulous Diaspora policy is imperative to leverage upon the growing  Indian Diaspora population. With the versatile role of Diaspora, India could fulfill its cherished dream of being a super power and it could make much head way in its international and foreign affairs.


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* The views expressed in the article are those of Authors. Dr. Mahalingam M  can  be contacted at: [email protected]

Dr. Mahalingam M  is a Research Fellow, Centre For Policy Analysis, New Delhi

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