"The Indian Diaspora - Past, Present, and Future" by Ashok Rao

Release Date: 
01/14/2013
When I was asked to write this article on the topic “The Indian Diaspora – Past, Present and Future”, I wondered what could I write, that you the reader, already did not already know. After all the Indian Diaspora particularly in the US, is well educated, well read and well informed. But I channeled Sir Richard Branson and his motto, and decided, “SCREW IT! Let’s do it”, and dived into researching this fascinating phenomenon.

Our diaspora’s Past and Present have been thoroughly documented and analyzed; and our Future? Well our Future is an area where we have so many prognosticators and so many expert opinions. It’s like going to the movies; everyone has an opinion, and everyone is a critic. Once I started researching the history of our diaspora, I realized that there was a lot I did not know, and I would think it is probably the same for most of you readers. Our view of our diaspora very much depends on one’s own personal perspective, one’s socio economic status, and one’s host country – in other words, one’s own somewhat blinkered view of our diaspora.

How many of us even know what the word “diaspora” actually means, and what is its source? Very simply put, the source of any Diaspora is MIGRATION.

Let us consider the act of Migration for a moment. 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. 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 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, whether it is Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, British, German, Chinese, or Indian. Over the past 2 millennia, three broad patterns of migration have occurred:
(a) Ancient and Medieval migration to colonial powers
(b) Migration to the industrial nations immediately after World War II, and
(c) Recent migration to developed countries for better career opportunities and better living condition, where the Internet, affordable airfare, and cheap communications help to maintain close ties with one’s homeland for people migrating to these countries.

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 “kpeiro” which means, “to scatter”. Literally “Diaspora” means scattering or dispersion. It was originally used for the dispersion of Jews after their exile from Babylon in the 6th Century BC, and later to refer to all the 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 Diaspora, 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. For instance, 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. This collective memory 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 the conditions required of a Diaspora. Let us examine those requirements in detail:
  1. We maintain our Family Traditions of origin, but also are gradually subject to social, cultural and political integration into the host nation.
  2. 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.
  3. We take an active interest in the general fate of India, and in important events in India.
  4. We perpetuate significant aspects of our Indian culture like language, tradition and religion: i.e.
    1. Most of us speak Hindi, as well as our mother tongues like Telugu, Gujarati, etc.
    2. We maintain our Tradition for Weddings, Upananyanams, Cremations etc.
    3. And we maintain our religions like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and other India based religions.
  5. We maintain regular communications with our family and friends in India.
  6. We 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. And lastly,
  7. 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. 
Let us a take a quick look at the Historical Evolution of the Indian Diaspora which numbers around 30 million. It is worthwhile and most instructive.

The history of migration from India goes back at least two thousand years. The first migrantion from what is modern day India was around the time of Kanishka, around the 1st century AD. They 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 South East Asia, starting around 500 AD. The Cholas, a great naval power, conquered what is today Indonesia and Malaysia and dominated the so-called Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The influence of Indian culture is still strongly felt in South East Asia, for example with 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 who left India several centuries ago. 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”).

However, over the past 2 centuries, India has achieved, arguably the world's most diverse and complex migration histories, forming the Modern Indian Diaspora. Spread across all 6 continents and 125 countries, it is estimated to number around 30 million. The characteristics of this diversified group, varies to an astonishing degree – yet we are all part of the same Indian diaspora. It varies to such an extent that we define 3 subsets of our diaspora:
  1. the Old Diaspora
  2. the New Diaspora
  3. and the Gulf Diaspora.
There is one consistent theme to all 3 of them. 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 is what we call the “Old Diaspora”, and began during the early 19th century and continued until the end of the British Raj.

Britain abolished of 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 the 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, and also exported 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 the mortality was high on British, Dutch and French boats from the sub-continent 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 UP. 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. All 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 modern 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 5 million Indians, mostly poor Tamils, migrated to these 3 countries, till 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 & Sindh settled in British colonies in the Middle East, and South & East African. For example, 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 time of Second World War the Indian Diaspora was approximately 6 million; out of this over 1 million Indians were 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 mostly unskilled workers for low wages.
  • 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 2% 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 Europeans Jews who had migrated in large numbers to the US since after 1890, to escape persecution in Europe. That is why the Act chose 1890 as its measurement date. It also had the collateral effect of prohibiting the entry of Middle Easterners, East Asians, and Indians to the US. According to the U.S. 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 at that time, 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 purposes of immigrating into Canada, 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. One must admit it was 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 postwar demand for low-skilled labor, India’s postcolonial 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. At the time (from 1947 till 1962), Indian nationals, as Commonwealth citizens, had an unrestricted right to enter the United Kingdom.

In 1962 and again later 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, the anti-Indian discrimination in African countries like Kenya and Uganda in the mid sixties onwards, 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 an East African country or 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 United States, 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 far and away the top recipients of H-1B visas each year. 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 3 million in the US, 1.5 million in the UK, and 1 million in Canada; a twentyfold increase in half a century. Today, we are the fourth largest immigrant group in the United States after the Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese.

Also, since the 1990s, Australia and New Zealand have 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 2 percent of their total population.

The most recent development of the Indian Diaspora is the so Gulf Diaspora. The 1970s oil boom in the Middle East ended up triggering 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 basis rather than permanent 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 5 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 USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and formed a part of new Indian Diaspora. The lower skilled, semi-skilled and un-skilled labor went to the Gulf region.

So what is the future for our diaspora? Well the answer is not that simple and could more accurately be answered by “it depends”. It 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, NY 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, currently, there are nine MPs of Indian-origin in that country's parliament – the Canadian House of Commons. In the UK, a record number of 8 Indian candidates including two women have been elected to the British Parliament; and 8 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 majorities 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 us ethnic Indians, and the increasing “coolness” of being Indian, we remain potential targets of xenophobia and hate inspired violence. Incidents of ethnic tensions exist all across our diaspora; as for instance in old diaspora countries like,
  • Malaysia, where despite some political representation, Indians faces discrimination, exacerbated by religious tensions between the predominantly Muslim Malays (Bhumiputras) and the predominantly Hindu Indians.
  • In Fiji, where ethnic Indians comprise over 40% of the population, anti-Indian resentment resulted in an ethnic Fijian coup d’état in 2000, which removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry from office. This coup was wholeheartedly supported by the Methodist Church of Fiji, which likened Indians to the evil citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • And in Trinidad, where 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, 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 have 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. In spite of the fact that Indians 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 one’s own culture, in which they found forces of sustenance, these Indians successfully labored to give their children and grand-children better economic futures. These descendants, in 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. Taking the US as a whole, though our share of the population in the US is less than 1%, Indians account for well over 5% of the scientists, engineers, and software specialists; and almost 10% of all the doctors. No group, not whites, not the Chinese, nor the Jewish people, 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 change in Japan 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 a variety of 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. Notwithstanding discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion in many countries, our diaspora added over 10 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”, and I think it best articulates my observations:
“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.”
 
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