The annual jamboree of overseas Indian was started by Atal Bihari Vajpaee, the first prime minister belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, in 2003. It is, therefore, natural that this year the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that attracts overseas Indians and people of Indian citizens was held early in January in expensively decorated Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, the home state of the new Indian prime minister with a known weakness for foreign travel even while he denounces certain Indians for their ‘foreign’ origin.
There was a distinct Gujarati flavour to the occasion that coincided with the century of the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ (home coming) of the best known Gujarati in the world, Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa. At the end of the overseas Indians’ gathering followed the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ show that one minister from Gujarat described as the ‘Davos of the East’.
There is no doubt that many of the delegates for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas gathering must have stayed on to attend the ‘vibrant’ show. The Gujaratis constitute a large part of the Indian diaspora of the rich class. It can also be in no doubt that the two separate gatherings at Gandhinagar had attracted the better off diaspora. The cost of flying into India, the registration fee and five-star board and lodge could not have been small by any standard.
The government of India uses the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to focus on overseas Indians—those who do well in life. But it is expected to take up the concerns of all overseas Indians, rich and poor alike. While there is nothing wrong in inviting the rich ‘Indians’, the fact is that not every overseas Indians or Indian citizens living and working abroad, is rich.
The Gulf region has the largest number of ‘Pravasi’ Indians– nearly 10 million. Most of them are employed in ‘low paid’ jobs that may not appear ‘low paid’ if converted into Indian rupees but in the countries where they live they will not be included in the middle income group.
The ‘Modi Sarkar’ expects the money that the rich overseas Indians earn to be invested in their ‘mother’ country. The government also hopes that the Indian diaspora engaged in high-tech research and scientific projects will think of sharing their expertise and knowledge with the country of their origin or birth.
But the diaspora from the world of academia and research finds the atmosphere in India discouraging. India has to work out a policy that can lure such overseas Indians. That at the moment does not seem to be part of the government’s agenda.
Most of the super rich Indians prefer to invest their money either in the country where they live or in tax havens. India is rarely their first choice for parking or investing their surplus funds because of many reasons—red tape, corruption, the ‘unease’ of doing business in India and, perhaps above all, the poor infrastructure.
In simple words, foreign funds, whether from the pockets of Indians or foreigners, will flow into the country in small quantities as long conditions do not become more helpful for investment and independent research. The government has done well to merge the People of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizens of Indian (OCI) schemes that will make it easier for the diaspora to visit and stay in India. But that is not the only issue that most Indian citizens abroad face.
In the Gulf region it is their exploitation by unscrupulous agents who recruit them and send them abroad to employers who ruin their lives by cheating and ill-treating them at every stage. The government of India has in recent years shown some concern about the issue, but it is still to be resolved entirely. Some might wonder if the delay in addressing the problems of this section of overseas Indians is due to the fact that they are not really the moneybags who will be welcomed with open arms at glittering functions like the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’.
Then there is also what might be called a ‘political’ problem that sometimes hits the diaspora. In 1987, a military coup in Fiji, led by Lt.-Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, saw the government headed by Mahendra Choudhary, originally from Haryana, thrown out for no reason at all other than the fact that the government was not headed by a native Fijian. The coup was followed by a large-scale migration of ethnic Indians in Fiji, mostly to Australia and New Zealand. Not many wanted to return to their ‘motherland’, despite deep cultural, religious and family ties with India.
It is believed that the expulsion of Indians in Fiji in 1987 led the government of India to seriously think of the Indian diaspora and chalk out a policy for them to safeguard their safety and interests.
In the early 1970s, Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, had ordered nearly all ethnic Indians out of his country, virtually without sufficient advance notice. At that time many Indians wanted to return to India but the country was not in a position to accept them all. They then chose to migrate to the UK, USA and Canada where most of them attained a level of prosperity that might not have been possible in India.
God forbid, if something similar happens again will the government of India be able to extend its hospitality to them? Doubtful! The general impression within the country is that India looks at the size of pockets of its OCIs and PIOs to decide what kind of welcome they will be given.
This impression is formed by the treatment of the minorities (mainly Hindus) who came to India from Pakistan and Afghanistan because they did not feel safe in their country where they had lived for centuries. Most of them are virtually stateless persons languishing in poorly maintained camps where succour comes to them from voluntary organisations, not government of India.
Other neighbouring countries from where people of Indian origin have come to India in large numbers include Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka have found hospitality in Tamil Nadu but there is no clarity about their legal status. The refugees from Myanmar have a problem of another kind. Most of them are Muslims and a BJP-led government might not extend the kind of help they expect.