New Internationalist

View From The South

Issue 354

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Urvashi Butalia's View From The South

The Shadow An Indian by any other name

In India we've coined a new name for our diaspora, those millions of Indians who now live outside the subcontinent. Sometimes they're known as NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) or, more recently, PIOs (People of Indian Origin). As names go, both of these cover a multitude of circumstances. But also, as names go, they don't cover them all, or even enough. NRIs or PIOs can be those who were taken away as indentured labour, or those who left the country in search of the proverbial pot of gold, or those who felt discriminated against (the celebrated author VS Naipaul says this is why people like him left the country, although this is a bit hard to swallow). But, curiously enough, the diaspora doesn't include those who were originally Indian - that is those whose identities had to change because of an accident of history, the redrawing of borders and the creation of new countries.

Recently, the Government in Delhi held a big jamboree - three days packed with meetings, speeches, cultural performances, cocktail parties and the like. The idea was to get our NRIs to invest some of their hard-earned wealth 'back home', to make them 'proud' of being Indian, to encourage them to build closer ties with their 'home' country. And there were lots of incentives, the key one being dual citizenship. Of course, that's something that's never been offered, nor would ever be, to Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who may actually have families in India. Even though their migration may not have been voluntary, they don't qualify because they now belong (Pakistanis in particular) to the 'other', the 'enemy' country.

Nor was dual citizenship offered to all NRIs and PIOs. The definition was much narrower. The lucky ones were the 'anointed few' who live in the lands of plenty (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States). As one observer rather harshly put it, these were 'third-generation Indian Yanks who've not yet been able to find the country on the map but who can just waltz in and win the big prize'.

Whether or not dual citizenship is the big prize is open to question. But what's certain is that the thousands of Indian workers - construction workers, nurses, nannies and nuns - whose remittances home have added substantially to the economy, were not in the reckoning at all. In the Indian Government's imagining the true NRI is the rich, literate, sophisticated, articulate Indian living abroad and it is this person who is to be wooed.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing the diaspora home. All over the world, immigrants have wanted to maintain contact with the land of their birth: sometimes this takes a cultural form, and sometimes it’s economic. But for the Hindu fundamentalist BJP Government there’s another agenda here...

In essence, there's nothing wrong with bringing the diaspora home. All over the world, immigrants have wanted to maintain contact with the land of their birth: sometimes this takes a cultural form, and sometimes it's economic. But for the Hindu fundamentalist BJP Government there's another agenda here: the Indian diaspora earns an estimated $300 billion a year. Over the years a substantial part of the money used to finance the often violent campaigns of the fundamentalist Right in India has come from abroad. There are times when this money is given knowingly, and others when it's given out of ignorance - fundamentalist groups are adept at setting up so-called 'cultural' fronts which can easily fool people who don't know any better.

I remember talking recently to a group of wealthy Indian students at an American university. They had collected $30,000 for victims of the Gujarat earthquake and had then gone to the Internet to figure out where to send the money. Weeks later they realized they'd sent the cash to a front for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a violent, right-wing Hindu group. For India's BJP Government, whose sister organizations are at the heart of this violence, it's important to woo this wealthy community, and important to woo the Hindus among them (which is why the BJP's recent festival did not have nearly as many Muslims as participants).

And then there are other concerns: as with any other artificially created community the diaspora is a profoundly varied 'group'. From indentured labourers, to construction workers, to rap musicians and rich industrialists, they're all included. Also in the mix are Indian men living abroad - usually in Britain or the US - who come back to India on the pretext of getting married. Here's how they operate: they come 'home', find a young woman to marry, collect a huge dowry, sometimes ask to be paid to take their bride back and then promising to send for her, they disappear. After this there's no trace of them. For the young woman it's not only the loss of money (very likely her parents' money) but the loss of self - who can she now marry when she is already 'married'? At the heart of such enterprises are unscrupulous travel agents and entrepreneurs skilled at making money out of people's desire for a better life.

Perhaps it's time we woke up to the fact that there's more than one kind of non-resident Indian; and perhaps it's time we spared a thought for the less fortunate ones as well.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher.
She lives in New Delhi.


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