Writing for The Economist on India’s diaspora in June this year, Avantika Chilkoti mentioned that the Indian diaspora is the largest in the world. She wrote, “India’s claim to be a democracy steeped in liberal values helps its diaspora integrate more readily in the West.
The diaspora in turn binds India to the West.” She also mentioned that the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal was pushed through by lobbying and fund raising by IndianAmericans. The MEA believes that the diaspora exceeding 30 million spreads across 205 countries. They remit US$80 billion to the country annually, which is the highest globally from any diaspora. Whenever the PM travels abroad, one of his major events is an address to the diaspora.
The atmosphere during such events is so electrifying that the PM of Australia, Anthony Albanese, compared Mr. Modi’s popularity amongst the diaspora to rockstar Bruce Springsteen, while introducing him at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney in May this year.
Other global addresses with a similar electrifying atmosphere include the one at Wembley stadium in London with over 60,000 attending, Shanghai and Singapore. Many more watch the events telecast live. The impact of the Indian diaspora and their feelings for the home country were prominent in the US when Donald Trump joined Mr. Modi on a common platform to address American-Indians. The ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston in Sept 2019 drew over 50,000 attendees. Indians in the US have crossed the 4.5 million mark and play a major role in binding the two nations.
Globally, Indians have made a mark due to their hard work and sincerity. Most are performers and well educated. The Economist mentions that the ‘median annual income of the Indian diaspora in the US is $150,000, which is double the national average.’ The Indian diaspora also has representatives in parliaments of UK, Australia, Canada, EU and the US, including few current and past heads of state. Currently Indians head 25 leading S and P 500 companies. They also hold important portfolios in local national politics. Neera Tandon, Director of US Domestic Policy Council stated, ‘you can’t throw a stone in the White House and not hit an Indian-American these days.’
While the diaspora are no longer Indian citizens, many follow Indian customs and traditions. It is not uncommon to witness typical Indian weddings abroad. It is this diaspora which carries Indian soft power across the globe. As Joseph Nye states, ‘if you have people in the diaspora who are successful and create a positive image of the country from which they came, that helps their native country.’ The government also works to remain connected and enhance rapport with its diaspora.
The ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’ which celebrates achievements of the Indian community abroad and connects with the diaspora is held on 9 January every year, coinciding with the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India in 1915. No matter where an Indian makes his home, his connections with his country of origin remain. This is in contrast to most other nations.
The diaspora has occasionally raised its voice for or against decisions of the Indian government, whether it be abrogation of article 370, the farmers’ bill or the Citizenship Amendment Act. Indian origin members of parliament have flagged issues concerning India in their political forums as these impact families of their constituents in India.
Thus, whatever happens in India has global ramifications due to the presence of the Indian diaspora. All major Indian political parties have their connectivity with the diaspora hoping for their support in domestic politics. Some political parties have received funding from the diaspora based on their agenda.
The Indian diaspora, apart from projecting India’s soft power, also influences Indian politics. A miniscule number of supporters of a utopian Khalistan, residents of different countries with religion as their sole link to India, remain a blot on the country’s largely peaceful diaspora. Their demands for splitting the country, joining hands with Pakistan to incite violence, targeting Indian origin Hindus and their places of worship in their countries of residence, solely as vengeance, while funding anti-India activities has gone against the ethos of an otherwise soft powerexpanding diaspora.
They gain confidence when their country of residence turns a blind eye. There have been occasions when activities of these elements have raised diplomatic tensions between India and their nation of residence, but nothing can match the current Indo-Canadian spat. India has, whenever their activities cross a threshold, protested to the concerned country requesting them to curb these illegal activities. While their protests as also failed referendums have had almost no impact on India, it is the violence they generate against other Indians or the nation’s diplomatic property which raises hackles in Delhi.
Since the movement for Khalistan poses no local threat, as compared to Islamic groups, the response of their home country is generally lukewarm. In response to Indian requests, countries enhance security for its diplomatic establishments, act against select perpetrators of violence but fail to curb ringleaders, nor are they willing to extradite them, despite India declaring them as terrorists and obtaining Interpol’s Red notice.
Intelligence provided by India is either ignored or rejected as being insufficient as evidence. In some cases, the movement is even exploited as a means to gain leverage over India. This was evident when the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, mentioned to his US counterpart, Jake Sullivan, that India has not acted against Sikhs for Justice leader, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, because it is aware that he is a CIA agent. The Khalistan movement had been ongoing for some time with little to show, but gained global attention after Justin Trudeau accused India of having a hand in the killing of known terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Since then, diplomats have been expelled and accusations exchanged between the two nations. India has stopped issuance of visas as the relationship slips downhill. A small group, with no legal sanctity, funded by an inimical Pakistan, has managed to mar the positive image of the Indian diaspora.
This could not have happened in isolation. Nations where such elements reside must understand that the diaspora has a lot to offer and by acting against a few troublemakers, they have much to gain from a growing and powerful India.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)