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March 1, 2010

Beyond borders: governing the diaspora

Often described as a durbar, there was little reverence at the most recent Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi. The eighth edition of the annual convention hosted a horde of foreign diaspora delegates who publicly rebelled, accusing the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs of hosting a repetitive “business-like” mela exclusively targeted at extracting their economic value. Such Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) now demand more rights and protection abroad, which the government is either unwilling or unable to extend. In order to escape this stalemate, New Delhi will have to draw a line and decide what it can offer and what it can demand from the diaspora.

The honeymoon is over

It will be ten years next August since the Ministry of External Affairs instituted the L M Singhvi-led High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora. The resulting 600 pages-long report and its recommendations gave birth to the current diaspora policy, based on the premise of a “collaborative exchange”.

On the one hand, India was able to reap billions of dollars in diasporic remittances, bonds and foreign investment. In Punjab, Goa or Kerala, the diasporic contribution at times amounted to 20 percent of the gross state product. Besides strict capital, emigrant expertise and manpower also played a crucial role in fuelling the IT success stories of Bangalore and Hyderabad. And on the diplomatic front, the expatriate lobby in the United States played a significant role during the negotiations of the India-US nuclear cooperation agreement.

In addition to benefiting from high interest rates and returns on investment, the diaspora has enjoyed other returns. The overseas citizenship scheme offers a lifelong visa and benefits excluding only civic and political rights. The government’s discourse glorified the diaspora as the “umbilical cord” connecting the “motherland” to its “lost children”, the media started to actively cover diaspora affairs, and the Indian film industry developed its Namastey London genre. Overseas Indians naturally felt proud proud that they belonged to the “emerging Asian superpower”.

However, ten years is already an unusually long time for a happy honeymoon to last and the diaspora policy is thus showing signs of exhaustion. In order to demand more rights from New Delhi, NRIs and PIOs from across the globe have started lobbying the central and state governments, pressuring MPs and MLAs, and even petitioning courts. Their demands cover issues ranging from religious and ethnic discrimination against new professionals and ethnic Indian minorities in Malaysia or Fiji, to the violation of rights of workers in the Persian Gulf and other labour-importing countries, or the violence against Indian students in Australia. The UPA government is also being drawn into a larger set of cultural and religious agendas, such as the turban controversy in France, the Sikh intra-community disputes in Austria, or the Hindu Americans’ efforts to pressure US states to make changes to school textbooks.

Governing abroad

New Delhi cannot just withdraw in the face of these problems. Instead, it will have to redirect its policy on three fronts. First, it will have to draw a very clear line—which unfortunately is too often ignored by the media, diasporic activists and even government officials—segmenting the diaspora into NRIs who are expatriate Indian citizens, and PIOs who are foreign nationals.

NRIs deserve full protection abroad. Indian diplomatic missions must be equipped with the necessary resources to ensure that they are treated with the respect they deserve as citizens, be they influential business entrepreneurs, professionals, students or low-skilled labourers. On the other hand, PIOs as citizens of another country, must scale down their expectations, and learn to accept Nehru’s offer of a “purely emotional relationship”.

Second, the Indian government must step up the defence of its citizens abroad, beyond mere logistical capacity to rescue NRIs from conflict zones, as during the 1991 Gulf war and more recently in Lebanon. To mitigate friction with host governments, it will be necessary to negotiate bilateral agreements governing areas ranging from extradition and minority rights to control of illegal labour flows and harmonisation of social security policies. The complexity of these issues will require an effective co-ordination between the ministries of overseas Indian affairs, external affairs, home affairs and labour.

Finally, New Delhi will have to embrace Foucault’s mantra that to govern is also to control. The modern state-nation-territory conflation is disaggregating and introverted states like India will have to reach out to their increasingly de-territorialised populations. This includes surveying the diaspora, monitoring outgoing and returning migratory flows for security reasons, instituting new forms of long-distance (consular or electronic) voting and NRI representative bodies at the local, state and national levels. To govern the diaspora also requires the government to walk the thin line between leveraging emigrants as a diplomatic tool and not letting them become an international liability. This task is of particular importance for the intelligence agencies, which have never hidden their interest and capacity to explore the diaspora as an external asset, at least since the Khalistan movement and the Fiji crisis of the 1980s.

To both serve and use the diaspora effectively, India needs a sophisticated external apparatus far beyond the traditional consular representations limited at issuing travel documents and holding cocktails for local communities.


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