‘Airlift’ and a reflection on India’s Diaspora Policy

Author:   Dr Amba Pande

Airlift’ and a reflection on India’s Diaspora Policy

Dr Amba Pande, School of International studies,JNU, Email: [email protected]

Films and novels based on real life events always have more than just the story to look into. The context and the narrative exposition which runs in the background often conveys more than the actual story and so is the case with the movie ‘Airlift’ especially for someone like me whose research interest lies in Indian Diaspora. ‘Airlift is based on the mass evacuation of Indians from Kuwait in the year 1990, when over 1, 70,000 Indians were airlifted, using 488 flights in just 59 days. Even though the facts shown can be contested at several points, the movie is a great entertainer with good performances. Most fascinating aspect is the subject and the situation in which the plot is set and compels one to reflect on how India has dealt or has approached its people living outside its borders i.e. its Diaspora.

We are well aware that Indian Diaspora is today the world’s largest Diaspora and consists of a diverse set of people in terms of class, caste, region, religion who are scattered in more than hundred countries. We generally categorise them into Colonial or Old Diaspora and Post- colonial or New Diaspora.  In terms of official catagorisation we divide them into Non Resident Indians (NRIs) and People of Indian Origin (PIOs). India’s policy approach towards it Diaspora has evolved over the years largely in accordance with other policy priorities. The challenge has always been to cater to the needs and aspirations of various groups within the Diaspora with specific and focused policies.

According to me India’s overall policy approach towards its Diaspora can be divided broadly into four phases starting from the pre-independence period when the overseas Indians were closely attached with the motherland economically, socially and politically and took active part in the Indian national movement against colonialism. Both Gandhi and Bose - although very different in their approaches- always considered overseas Indians as an integral part of the national belongingness. Bose’s outreach towards the Diaspora and the INA movement can be regarded as the most glorious chapter in the history of Indian Diaspora. Bose even issued a membership card of Provisional Government of Azad Hind to the Indians living in Southeast Asia. It was one of the first examples of a kind of dual citizenship.

Nevertheless, as India gained independence the overseas Indians were excluded from Nehru’s narrative of nation and nation building.  This policy was in line with Nehru’s larger policy framework of Panchshila and to some extent India’s limitations as a newly independent state to handle the complex issues like citizenship and atypical cases. As a result the cries of Indians in Burma (for compensation), Malaysia (for citizenship) and Uganda (against expulsion) were completely ignored by New Delhi in the name of larger national interest. I term this phase as the years of ‘Passive Involvement,’ because of New Delhi’s unreceptive political and economic attitude towards overseas Indians. Although culturally India was connected with them and Indian cultural centres played an active role in the countries were Indians were settled, politically and legally India maintained complete distance. In other words it was like shirking away from responsibility. This attitude completely failed diasporic Indians and created a huge gap between them and the motherland. It is often termed as a ‘missed opportunity’ for India as overseas Indians could have not only helped India financially but could also have played important role in its foreign relations.

This policy approach continued till late 1970s when a slight shift was witnessed. The oil boom in West Asia during the 1970s-80s saw an upsurge in infrastructure building activities, which attracted a large number of migrant workers from India. It was followed by an influx of remittances hugely benefiting India’s foreign exchange reserves. For the first time the economic potential of the Diaspora became obvious to the government and several policy changes took place like welfare of migrant labourers in the gulf countries including their evacuation during Gulf war which is the backdrop of the movie ‘Airlift’; new emigration act providing for a compulsory registration of recruitment agents; facilitated banking system for repatriation of foreign exchange; high interest rates for foreign exchange deposits etc. This change in attitude also, got reflected in Government’s handling of the Fijian crisis in 1987 in which India took keen interest as compared to previous such cases.

With regard to the 1990 evacuation also, the truth is that the entire operation was actually financed and executed by the Indian government. According to K. P. Fabian[1], who was at that time, the Joint Secretary of the Gulf division at the Ministry of External Affairs, the role of the Ministry and the portrayal of diplomats and bureaucrats in the film were much short in its research. In 1990, when the crisis began, India and Iraq were good friends and VP Singh the then Prime Minister had sent foreign minister IK Gujral to meet Saddam Husain on the issue of evacuation of Indians.  In view of the huge logistical problem, it was New Delhi’s race against time. However, in that whole operation the role of Indians settled in Kuwait especially of Sunny Mathews (on whom Akshay Kumar's character is loosely based), cannot be undermined. For those who were stranded Mathews is still referred to as some sort of ‘messiah’.  

Despite these initiatives that reflected New Delhi’ changing perspective about its Diaspora, India was still not ready to come out of Nehruveian policy umbrella and overtly engage with the Diaspora. There could be no doubt that New Delhi’ response was much short of what was desired both in Fiji and also in the Gulf especially if we look at the way such situations are dealt with in the present. I prefer to call this phase as the phase of ‘Reluctant Involvement’ as India had become aware of the potential of its Diaspora but was yet to set its path for engaging with it.

Finally, the fourth phase that started in mid to late 1990s, a seismic shift occurred in India’s policy approach towards the Diaspora resulting into what can be best termed as the phase of a ‘Proactive symbiotic involvement’.  With the liberalisation of Indian Economy in early 1990s new avenues for Diaspora engagement were opened which is slowly but visibly yielding results in terms of economic benefits and in the context of ‘soft power’. Very significant policy changes have taken place since then, to make the Diaspora as the partners in the India’s developmental process. The Indian Diaspora too has now begun to realize the enormous economic potential of India and its emergence as an important global power that tremendously bolstered its image and identity. In response to persistent demands for "dual citizenship" particularly from the Diaspora in developed countries ‘Overseas Citizenship of India’ was awarded by the Indian Government in 2006, which is a partial citizenship initiative. In the recent past the Diaspora has contributed significantly in terms of remittances, bank deposits and philanthropy. Politically too one can find instances of Diaspora pressure groups working for India’s Interest.

Thus, in this era of a heightened sense of integration and connectivity fostered by transnational networks, both India and its Diaspora have slowly picked up the threads of history, which presents a well-timed opportunity to build a mutually advantageous relationship. However, this association is still being redefined. The state policy towards the Diaspora is always an evolutionary process and undergoes several changes. There is no doubt that India has come a long way in this direction looking  at the way the Minister of External Affairs personally monitoring the cases similar to the movie ‘Airlift’. The push given by the present government will further strengthen this relationship and take it to new heights, is without doubt.  However, there are responsibilities towards the various other groups and categories of people who are still deprived and continue living hard lives in their countries of settlement and unfortunately are also at the peripheries of India’s Diaspora policy. The real challenge for India would be to successfully harmonise their interests and concerns with overall foreign policy goals.


[1] Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March, 2011, 93-107



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