The Indian Diaspora In Service of India
Despite being the second most populous country in the world, India has a relatively small diaspora, comprising only 2 percent of the country’s population. Still, they number nearly 25 million Indians in the world and are a major asset for the Indian economy.
Brief Historical Overview
Indian communities around the world were established by several waves of emigration. At the beginning of the 19th century, the first wave headed for Africa, Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka), Fiji and the Caribbean (Trinidad, Jamaica). The second wave was precipitated by the abolition of slavery in 1833-1834 and the resulting need for labor within the British Empire. The third migratory wave unfolded after India’s independence in 1947 and comprised in large part of qualified managers chafing bureaucratic inertia at home and heading toward more developed countries. Finally, the fourth wave, motivated by the growing need of oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf for low-skilled workers, began in the 1970s, most of them from the province of Kerala. In 2014, there were 2.2 million Indians in the United States, 784,000 in the United Kingdom, and 550,000 in Canada. These figures are incomplete and with many Indians having already acquired citizenship of their host countries, the real numbers are likely much higher.
India’s Relations With Its Diaspora
In India, Indian nationals abroad are referred to as overseas India. Since independence in 1947, Indian governments have advocated for the integration of Indian emigrant communities in their host countries. But New Delhi’s policy does not immediately translate into appreciation of these communities’ strategic importance. For instance, in 1972, Indian authorities refused to welcome compatriots expelled from Uganda. In 1986, New Delhi took up a more welcoming attitude by creating, within the Department of Industry, a service to facilitate investment procedures for non-residents.
Since the 1990s, the Indian government has deployed new initiatives to mobilize the Indian diaspora for the benefit of the country. In 1999, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a department for non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin and facilitated their access to property and the granting of a long-stay visa to enable them to travel more easily between their country of residence and India. In August 2000, a High Council of the Indian Diaspora was created which cited as one of its aims the transformation of “members of the diaspora into ambassadors of India.” In 2003, an amendment to the law on Indian citizenship allowed the creation of overseas citizenship for nationals of other countries of Indian origin. The same year, an event for Indian expatriates (Pravasi Bharatiya Divas) was organized, bringing together several thousand delegates from Indian diasporas from 61 countries. Two years later, in January 2005, during the third annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his hope that one day all the descendants of Indian immigrants living in different countries of the world would “benefit from Indian citizenship if they so desire.”
During the 2008 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi, India presented the head of the Mauritian government with the “Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award” for his “exceptional” contribution as the son of an Indian immigrant. Following this, India’s Foreign Ministry began building a database to have a more realistic overview of its diaspora.
As such, two types of diaspora membership emerged: persons of Indian origin (PIO) and non-resident Indians (NRIs), both of whom can obtain a document proving their origin, even if they do not have Indian nationality. PIOs, some of whom are descendants of the first migratory wave, fall into three categories: people who have previously held an Indian passport; people whose parents, one grandparent or one great-grandparent were born, or had a permanent residence on the territory of India as defined by Indian laws (thus excluding Pakistan and Bangladesh); and the spouse of an Indian citizen.
The second group, NRIs, are Indian citizens, with an Indian passport and residing outside India for an indefinite period, for any reason. In fact, NRIs are most often recent emigrants and considered temporary emigrants. Of course, their temporary emigration could become permanent in countries open to naturalization, such as in Europe or North America, but they are likely to remain temporary migrants in countries where access to citizenship is impossible, like in Gulf countries. By the mid-2010s, both PIOs and NRIs comprised 28 million people, according to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.
A Struggling Diaspora
New Delhi has established a database of emigrants to better understand their needs. Among their objectives is an intention to enhance the potential of Indians working in the Silicon valley, to attract investors to India. This took the form of the launch of the “Madad” portal, which not only collects the grievances of migrants, but works toward signing MOUs with countries that host large communities of Indian workers (Gulf countries, Jordan, Malaysia). India has opened new embassies in Latin American and African states where its economic and geopolitical role was more limited than that of China. Modernizing services for overseas Indians is one of the government’s priorities. Among the programs set up by New Delhi for its diaspora are, Bharat ko Janiyé to help Indians in the diaspora to better know their country of origin, how to find accommodation and the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwasé. The Indian government also supports its nationals under threat, for example by organizing an evacuation of Indians from war-torn Yemen in 2015 with Operation Rahat. In the Middle East, many Indian workers have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 and seek help to return home.
Indian-American: Geopolitical Actors
In 2014, the OECD ranked the U.S. as second place among the countries of origin of Indian immigrants, i.e. 2.2 million after Mexico. The Indian government estimates that there are 4.5 million Indian-Americans who enjoy a vast network of associations (Association of Christian Indian Americans, Los Angeles 2000, Federation of Muslim Indian Associations). Indian-Americans are a significant electoral weight at the local and federal level. In 2002, a U.S.-India Political Action Committee was formed and in 2004 a India Senate Caucus was formed which achieved an increase in the number of visas for Indians. Many Americans of Indian origin hold political office at the state and municipal level. In 2020, after the victory of President Joe Biden, for the first time in U.S. history, more than 20 Indian-Americans have either been appointed or nominated to as U.S. government officials with at least 17 of them in key positions.
Indian-Americans also lobby for policies beneficial to India. During successive conflicts between India and Pakistan, Washington exerted strong pressure on Islamabad in order to obtain the withdrawal of Pakistani soldiers from several points in Kashmir. Moreover, in 2007, the Indian diaspora lobbied the Senate for the signing of the civilian nuclear deal with New Delhi, earning them the gratitude of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In Canada, the Indian diaspora is smaller in number than in the United States, but at 2.8 percent of the Canadian population, it represents a larger proportion and is growing. Indian-Canadians also serve in Canada’s government, with, for example, Ujjal Dosanjh, serving as Prime Minister of British Columbia in 2000-2001. British-Indians also play a prominent role in the U.K. There are many British industrialists of Indian origin, including Lakshmi Mittal. Several members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are also of Indian origin and both of Britain’s two main political parties have formed Indian Friendship Parliamentary Groups.
Temporary Emigrants in the Gulf
The economic needs of Gulf countries, combined with a limited labor force, have generated temporary work immigration since the 1970s. Of the nearly 7 million Indians working in the Gulf countries, about half come from the province of Kerala. These Indian immigrants in the Gulf are mostly unskilled or low-skilled men, but there are also doctors, engineers, architects, and bankers, as well as people–generally women, providing domestic services. In contrast to Europe, however, these countries do not allow Indian workers to obtain citizenship, leading to the high turnover of workers since they cannot remain on site after the conclusion of their employment contract. The geopolitical role of the Indian diaspora in the Gulf region is therefore very limited. However, the Indian government considers Gulf countries as strategic and it cooperates with them, especially so that the latter do not obstruct the transfer of remittances. Political pressure from New Delhi can have an economic impact simply because the Gulf countries need this workforce. Apart from the Gulf countries, an Indian diaspora is also present, in a very different context, in another Middle Eastern country, Israel, where its presence has geopolitical effects.
The Indian Diaspora in Israel
Since the 1940s, approximately 50,000 Indian Jews have emigrated to Israel. These Jews and their descendants generally wish to maintain ties with India because there is a perception that their ancestors did not experience mistreatment there. Moreover, the role played by the Indian diaspora in Israel, and the Indians of the Jewish faith living in India, contribute to good diplomatic relations between India and Israel. Thus, from July 4-6, 2017, 25 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and India, Narendra Modi was the first Indian head of government to make an official visit to Israel.
The Indian diaspora is diverse in its migration patterns, the politics of the countries of residence, and the regions of India from which it originates. Its economic and political potential represent an asset for India.
By promoting its diaspora’s potential, India can enhance its foreign policy and stimulate its development, especially through lobbying efforts in countries such as the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom or Israel. Armenia can use India’s experience to better use its diaspora for diplomatic and economic interests.