The Indian Diaspora – Past, Present and Future

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Houston, Texas – Our diaspora’s past and present have been thoroughly documented and analyzed, and our future? Our future is an area where we have many prognosticators and expert opinions. Our view of our diaspora very much depends on one’s own personal perspective, socioeconomic status, and host country – in other words, one’s own, somewhat blinkered view of our diaspora.

What does the word “diaspora” actually mean, and what is its source? Simply put, the source of any diaspora is migration. Migration, a fundamentally essential ingredient of global social change, is a phenomenon that has been taking place for thousands of years and continues all over the world. It happens when people can no longer sustain themselves within their own milieus and they migrate to places where resources are more easily available. In earlier periods, people migrated from one place to another in search of food, shelter, and safety from persecution. Today, people tend to migrate in search of better career opportunities and a better quality of life.

Migrants not only take with them their skills and expertise to their new locales, but also their culture, living styles and collective memories. Over the ages, this has been a common thread, irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. Over the past two millennia, three broad patterns of migration have occurred: ancient and medieval migration to colonial powers; migration to the industrial nations immediately after World War II; and recent migration to developed countries for better career opportunities and living conditions, where the internet, affordable airfare, and cheap communications help to maintain close ties with one’s homeland.

The phenomenon that is human migration is best captured by the term we have all come to know as “diaspora”. The term diaspora is derived from the Greek words, “dia”, which means “through,” and “speiro” which means, “to scatter.” Literally, “diaspora” means scattering or dispersion. It was originally used to describe the dispersion of Jews after their exile from Babylon in the 6th century BC, and later to refer to all Jewish people scattered in exile outside Palestine. Today it has come to describe any group of people who are dispersed or scattered away from their home country with a distinct collective memory and a myth of return.

There is no ambiguity about the term when it is used in relation to the Jewish people, but once it is applied to other religious or ethnic groups, it becomes difficult to make a clear distinction between what is a migration and what is a diaspora, or between what is a minority and what is a diaspora. We do not use the term “British Diaspora” when discussing the presence of even recent descendants of British people in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada or the United States. They are simply Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Canadians or Americans, even though they meet most of the requirements of a diaspora. Nor is the term applied to the many German colonies established in Central and Eastern Europe, or in several Latin American countries. These colonies, in both Chile and Argentina for instance, continue to retain their Germanic identity – normally a key-defining feature of a diaspora, – but there is no reference to a “German Diaspora” in our lexicon. They are typically referred to as a “minority of superiority.”

A diaspora is also characterized by the role played by a collective memory, which retains the historical facts that precipitated the dispersion or scattering, as well as the cultural heritage of the homeland, and is often religious in nature. The Indian Diaspora fulfills all these conditions. We maintain our family traditions of origin, but also are gradually subject to social, cultural and political integration into the host nation. We are acutely aware of our Indian (and regional) origins, but don’t go much further than a sympathetic curiosity about them; however, our personal identity is significantly affected by that awareness. We take an active interest in the general fate of India, and in important events in India. We perpetuate significant aspects of our Indian culture like language – most of us speak Hindi, as well as our mother tongues – and we maintain our religions and our tradition for weddings, upananyanams, and cremations. We maintain regular communications with our family and friends in India and send remittances back home on a regular basis. India is number one in the world, with over $55 billion in annual remittances (China is second with $50 billion). Lastly, we attempt to influence our host country governments to pursue policies favorable to India, such as the intense lobbying by the Indian Diaspora in the US to get a recalcitrant US Senate to approve the Nuclear Treaty.

The Historical Evolution of the Indian Diaspora, which numbers around 30 million, goes back at least two thousand years. The first migration from what is modern day India was around the time of Emperor Kanishka, in the first century AD. These were the Romani people, now known all around the world as “Gypsies,” from what today is the Indian state of Rajasthan. They emigrated from India towards the northwest and eventually settled in Eastern Europe.

Another major migration from the Indian subcontinent was to Southeast Asia, starting around 500 AD. The Cholas, a great naval power, conquered what is today Indonesia and Malaysia and dominated the Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The influence of Indian culture is still strongly felt in the royal Brahmins, kings of Thailand, the archeological wonders of the Angkor Kingdoms of Cambodia, and in Indonesia, especially in central Sumatra and Bali.

However, in all these early migrations, it is not reasonable, or even acceptable, to apply the label of “Indian Diaspora” to the descendants of those emigrants. Intermixture with the local population over the centuries has been so great as to eliminate all traces of such Indian identity, and they are no longer considered PIOs (people of Indian origin).

Over the past two centuries, India has arguably achieved the world’s most diverse and complex migration history, forming the modern Indian Diaspora. Spread across six continents and 125 countries, it is estimated to number around 30 million. The characteristics of this diverse group, all part of the same Indian Diaspora, varies to such an extent that we define three subsets: the Old Diaspora; the New Diaspora; and the Gulf Diaspora. There is one consistent theme to all three. They were, and are, all created by a labor migration – unskilled labor, starting two centuries ago, and highly skilled labor, post the mid-1960s.

The first wave of today’s Indian Diaspora, the Old Diaspora, began during the early 19th century and continued until the end of the British Raj. Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and this act was followed by other colonial powers like France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Their colonies now urgently needed manpower to work the sugar and rubber plantations that were once worked by African slaves. To meet this demand, the British established a system of indentured labor migration from the Indian subcontinent.

In 1834, Britain first began exporting bonded Indian labor to Mauritius. The Dutch and French replicated the British system, also exporting Indian workers to their colonies. In just a decade, this small-scale migration became a mass movement to provide cheap labor to British and other European colonies. Conditions of absolute poverty in many parts of India, and the prospect of gaining wealth overseas, motivated people to sell themselves and become bonded laborers. Conditions of these journeys were extremely difficult and mortality was high on British, Dutch and French boats from the subcontinent to these colonies, not much better than the slaver boats that brought black Africans to the plantations of the southern United States.

Workers for plantations in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Fiji were mainly recruited from the present day states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Guyana and East Africa, laborers originated primarily from Punjab and Gujarat. Given the proximity of Tamil Nadu to French possessions in India like Pondicherry, the workers in most French colonies, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Reunion, were Tamils. These migrants were almost all males. This brutal indenture system lasted until World War I.

In response to severe criticism, Britain abolished the indenture system in 1916. By that time, more than 1.5 million Indians had been shipped to colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. During roughly the same period, another form of labor migration was taking place. Tapping the labor surplus of South India, mostly in what is today the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the colonial bosses of tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Burma authorized Indian headmen to recruit entire families and ship them to plantations. About five million Indians, mostly poor Tamils, migrated to these three countries, until the system was abolished just prior to World War II.

Around that same time, in addition to low-skilled workers, merchants and traders from Gujarat and Sindh settled in British colonies in the Middle East, and South and East African. Gujarati and Sindhi merchants became shop owners in East Africa, and traders from Kerala and Tamil Nadu were involved in the retail trade, and in money lending to poor Indian peasants in Burma, Ceylon and Malaya. By the second World War, the Indian Diaspora was approximately six million, with over one million Indians in Burma. At that time, there were only 6,000 Indians in United States.

Today this Old Diaspora constitutes 60% of our Indian Diaspora, or approximately 18 million PIOs, and is primarily a pre-WW II phenomenon. The New Diaspora, on the other hand, consists of migrants who left India in large numbers from the mid-60s onwards, primarily to developed countries like the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Western Europe. Around 1900, there were less than a thousand Indians in both the UK and the United States. By World War II, the number had grown to around 6,000 in each country. In Britain these were mostly unskilled, low-wage workers and in the US, mostly Sikhs who worked in agriculture in California.

Many factors contributed to this de minimis trickle of migrants from India to these developed countries. Draconian legislation in the United States had banned immigration to the US from all but a handful of Western European countries. The Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, probably the most overtly racist immigration law in the world at the time, served to limit the annual number of immigrants to the US from any country to two percent of the number of people from that country who were already living in the US dating back to 1890. The law was aimed at stopping Eastern European Jews, who had migrated in large numbers to the US, particularly after 1890, to escape persecution in Europe. That is why the act chose 1890 as its measurement date; it simultaneously had the collateral effect of prohibiting the entry of Middle Easterners, East Asians, and Indians to the US. According to the US Department of State at the time, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

Similarly, at the turn of the century in Canada (also part of the British Empire), there were about 100 Indians. This number rose to 5,000 by 1907, before a restrictive new law stopped any further immigration. This law required that whoever landed in Canada for the purpose of immigrating, make a continuous journey from the country of one’s citizenship. It stopped Indian immigration in its tracks, since no steamships traveled directly from India to Canada. It was a very clever sleight of hand, since its goal was to stop immigration into Canada from all but a few Western European countries.

The landscape began to change after Indian independence. Unskilled, and some skilled workers, mostly male Punjabi Sikhs, migrated from India to the United Kingdom. This was due to Britain’s post-war demand for low-skilled labor, India’s post-colonial ties, and the UK’s Commonwealth immigration policy, which allowed any citizen of a Commonwealth country to live, work, vote, and hold public office in the United Kingdom. Many settled in London, as well as industrial cities like Leicester and Birmingham. From 1947 until 1962, Indian nationals, as Commonwealth citizens, had an unrestricted right to enter the United Kingdom.

In 1962 and again in 1968, the British Commonwealth Immigration Acts rescinded these rights for Indians. However, 20 years later, when the UK was faced with a shortage of highly skilled labor, the UK reversed itself and Indian migration to the UK picked up considerably. Additionally, from the mid-60s onward, the anti-Indian discrimination in African countries like Kenya and Uganda also resulted in a large-scale secondary migration of PIOs to the UK. Of the current Indian Diaspora in the UK, one-fifth is as a result of this secondary migration from East African countries and South Africa.

The dividing line for Indian immigration to the United States, and resultant significant diaspora formation, is the year 1965. It was in 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress passed the historic Hart-Celler Act. This legislation terminated the racist 1924 Johnson-Reed act, abolished national origins quotas, and made it possible for high-skilled immigrants, including Indians, to gain legal, permanent residence in the United States, and bring their family members, as well.

As in the US, significant immigration of Indians to Canada was triggered by new immigration legislation that opened the door to highly skilled immigrants. In 1968, Canada introduced its points system, which assigns value to qualifications rather than a person’s ethnic or national background. As a result, Indian immigration to Canada boomed.

The 1990s software boom and rising economy in the US attracted Indians by the boatload. The US Immigration Act of 1990, effective from 1995, facilitated this process further by introducing the H-1B temporary worker program, allowing US businesses to hire foreigners with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in “specialty occupations,” including doctors, scientists, engineers, and IT specialists. Indian citizens are by far the top recipients of H-1B visas each year, and as a result, the Indian diaspora in the US is highly skilled. The US Census Bureau estimates that 75 percent of all ethnic Indians working in the US hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and 69 percent work in management and professional occupations.

US, UK, and Canadian census data from 2010 estimates that the Indian Diaspora grew to three million in the US, 1.5 million in the UK, and one million in Canada; a twenty-fold increase in half a century. Today, we are the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese.

Since the 1990s, Australia and New Zealand have also become important destination countries for Indians, since both countries look to attract English-speaking, highly qualified professionals, often to supply their IT industries. The Indian Diaspora in Australia numbers 400,000, almost two percent of their total population.

The most recent development of the Indian Diaspora is the Gulf Diaspora. The 1970s oil boom in the Middle East triggered significant migration from India to the Persian Gulf. An increasing number of semi and unskilled workers, primarily from South India, have worked in the gulf countries on temporary schemes in the oil industry and in services and construction. With modern air transportation, this was on a contractual, rather than permanent basis, as in the 19th century. These Gulf countries have a common policy of not naturalizing non-Arabs, even if they are born there, thereby relegating our diaspora in those countries to a kind of second class status. At one time the fastest growing segment of our diaspora, the Gulf Diaspora has now stabilized at around five million.

The common thread between all the three groups of the Indian Diaspora is that they are labor migrants. The more recent migration of skilled and highly-skilled labor went to the developed countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and formed a part of new Indian Diaspora. The lower-skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor went to the Gulf region.

So what is the future for our diaspora? The answer depends on a variety of factors, some within our control, but most not. While ethnic Indians are a small but wealthy minority in the US, UK, and the countries of the New Diaspora, they constitute 40 percent of the population in Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana, Reunion and Suriname, and 70 percent of Mauritius – all Old Diaspora countries.

The new Indian Diaspora, especially in the United States, is highly organized with many regional and pan-Indian cultural, professional, religious, and charity organizations. In recent years, Indians have demonstrated their increasing political influence with the election of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, New York Attorney General Preet Bharara, and the formation of the India Caucus in both the Congress and the Senate.

Other countries have seen even more Indians elected to major public office. In Canada, there are currently nine MPs of Indian origin in that country’s parliament, the Canadian House of Commons. In the UK, a record number of eight Indian candidates, including two women, have been elected to the British Parliament, and eight members of the House of Lords are people of Indian origin.

The success of Indian entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, academics, media personalities, filmmakers, and IT professionals in the US, has created trust in India’s intellectual abilities abroad. It has been a major factor in branding India as a source of well-educated and hard working professionals. Remember, it was not more than 20 years ago when India was not “cool.” There was no “India Shining” or “Incredible India,” but rather India was viewed as a poverty-ridden country of snake charmers and elephants; but no more. This new India brand explains the increased interest in recruiting Indian graduates and professionals in several countries. It also contributes to the willingness of US and other companies to collaborate with, and outsource to, Indian companies. Ethnic Indians, particularly in New Diaspora countries, have become known for their economic, professional, academic, scientific, and artistic successes and generally peaceful integration. However, the vast majority of our 30 million diaspora, including those on temporary contracts that make up the Gulf Diaspora, face discrimination, have limited rights, and can only look forward to less secure futures.

Lets face it – we are a people who differ in ethnicity, skin color and religion from the majority populations of most of our host countries. Despite the general acceptance of ethnic Indians, and the increasing “coolness” of being Indian, we remain potential targets of xenophobia and hate-inspired violence. Incidents of ethnic tension exist all across our diaspora. In Old Diaspora countries like Malaysia, despite some political representation, Indians face discrimination, exacerbated by religious tension between the predominantly Muslim Malays (Bhumiputras) and the predominantly Hindu Indians. In Fiji, where ethnic Indians comprise over 40 percent of the population, anti-Indian resentment resulted in an ethnic Fijian coup d’état in 2000, which removed from office the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. This coup was wholeheartedly supported by the Methodist Church of Fiji, which likened Indians to the evil citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Trinidad, the Speaker of the House, Occah Seapual, an Indian woman, was unseated by the People’s National Movement (PNM), the black party which had held power for most of the recent history of Trinidad. They did it by promulgating a state of emergency in the dead of night, placed her under house arrest, and eventually removed her as Speaker of the House.

This discrimination persists not just in countries like Malaysia, Fiji, and Trinidad, but also in the New Diaspora countries like the UK and Germany, where skinhead Brits and Germans have violently clashed with people from South Asia, and in Australia, where attacks on Indian students have happened at an alarming rate. Even in the US, a country where Indians have made immense strides in all fields, we are not immune from hate crimes, like the Dot-buster gangs of New Jersey, or the massacre of worshipers at the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin.

Wherever Indians are able to establish themselves, they became indispensable as the principal arteries of trade and shopkeepers to the nation, and so unfortunately open themselves to the charge that they have done so by illicit activities, by marginalizing the local population, and with no other thought than of enhancing their own interests and prosperity. We become victims of our own success.

Having noted all of this, our diaspora should be a source of pride to all Indians, inside and outside of India. Though Indian migrants have lived in conditions of appalling poverty in many places of the world where they were first taken as indentured labor many years ago, a number of remarkable transformations have taken place over the past generations. Through thrift, dogged perseverance, hard work, and most importantly, by a withdrawal into our own culture, in which they found forces of sustenance, these Indians successfully labored to give their children and grandchildren better economic futures. These descendants, over time, came to capture the trade, commerce and business leadership of their new homelands. This was just as true in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, as it was in Trinidad, Mauritius, Suriname and Burma, notwithstanding the resentment and discrimination of the local populace and political establishments.

If Indians appear to have done well for themselves within the economic domain of these Old Diaspora countries, our affluence in New Diaspora countries like the United States is even more pronounced, as is our presence within top professions. Though our share of the population in the US is less than one percent, Indians account for well over five percent of the scientists, engineers, and software specialists, and almost ten percent of all the doctors. No group has a higher median household income than Indians, which is almost double that of the overall average of the United States.

Indeed, when India, the nation, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy 20 years ago, the flood of such success stories coming from our diaspora helped to lay the groundwork for the abolition of India’s senseless licensing restrictions on capacity creation, product diversification, and import competition. The very effective lobbying of the Indian government by our diaspora eventually triggered our liberal reforms and set us on the path to becoming an economic juggernaut – a so called BRIC country. Who can forget the clarion call of “Desh Bachao, DOT Hatao” from a couple of Indian stalwarts from California, that became the catalyst for our telephone system in India going from worst to first in the world.

India’s recent transformation is analogous in some ways to what happened to Japan during the Meiji Restoration in Japan 150 years ago. Emperor Meiji ended the shogunate and forced Japan to change from being a closed feudal society to a market-driven economy. Japan’s transformation was accomplished through major initiatives enabled by gifted Japanese who were sent abroad by the emperor to bring back ideas that were adapted to Japan’s culture and needs. In India’s case, our diaspora has served a similar function, though unlike Japan, not because of our government, but in spite of it.

Our diaspora has also contributed to India’s ascendency in the world by its achievements in the fields of entrepreneurship, business, academia, science, arts and culture, in all the countries we have migrated to. Experts predict that India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world by 2050. Our population will be young, and thus highly mobile. Given the conundrum of an expanding middle class in India, juxtaposed against the continuing abject poverty of over half a billion Indians, migration patterns will accelerate. In spite of discrimination, xenophobia, and exclusion in many countries, our diaspora added over ten million to its numbers in the last decade alone. The migration of highly skilled professionals, the continuing export of labor, and illegal immigration to New Diaspora countries are likely to add to those numbers.

As I look back at our diaspora’s past, and try to look forward to its future, I am reminded of Omar Khayyam’s famous poem from his signature work Rubaiyat:

“The moving finger writes; and, having writ
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”

Ashok Rao
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Ashok Rao, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi alumnus, is the current chairman of the TIE Global Board of Trustees; Chairman and CEO of Whodini, Inc., his fifth successful start-up; CEO of Excalibur Pictures, which has produced four award-winning feature films, including “My Faraway Bride;” and is a guest speaker and lecturer.

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