Indian Diaspora- Be Part of the Place, not Visitor

Uday Kumar Varma

Rishi Sunak’s elevation as UK’s first Prime Minister of Colour seems to have brought legitimate elation and a sense of pride to Indians. Similar elation was displayed two years ago, when Kamala Harris became the US Vice-President, short-lived though it was.

Deeper and more fundamental issues, though, confront the Indian diaspora, presently the strongest and most diversified.

How do we foresee the future of this sprawling influential presence of Indians in the global context? Does survival and livelihood define their future frame of existence or should it go beyond them, adding and enriching the foreign cultures with a little bit of the spirit and soul of India?

There is a sense of elation on Rishi Sunak becoming the first non-white Premier of UK. His ancestors belong to India, though he is from Kenya. There was also a short-lived elation on Kamala Harris becoming the Vice-President of US. This sense of pride is not illegitimate but we may perhaps be debating or discussing deeper aspects concerning the future of Indian diaspora. 

Photo © Lalit Shastri

Every year 2.5 million Indians migrate overseas, making it the highest number of migrants in the world. Ministry of External Affairs reports over 32 million Non-Resident Indian(NRIs) and Overseas Citizens of India(OCIs) residing outside India making it the largest diaspora of any country in the world. The largest number 4.46 million reside in USA followed by UAE which hosts 3.4 million Indians. Pakistan, the closest neighbour  and one time part of India has the fewest Indians on her soil, just over 16,000.

Non-Resident Indians(NRIs) are Indian citizens who live outside India while Overseas Citizens of India(OCIs) are people of India birth or ancestry who are living outside India and also are not citizens of India.

With the current pace of migration the numbers by 2025 will cross 40 million; and by 2050 will top 100 million. Even today the strength of Indian diaspora is more than the population of 80% of the countries of the world. Out of 195 countries only 40 have more than 30 million population.

A Melbourne billboard showcasing Indian migrants and their numbers in Australia. Photo © Lalit Shastri

How do we foresee the role of this sprawling influential presence of Indians in the global context? Are they supposed to pursue the career interests or business interests for which they migrated or do they or should they contribute a bit of India to the countries of their adoption? Does survival and livelihood define their future frame or should it go beyond it?

Ignorance or Insensitivity?
During my stay in a place on eastern coast in USA, dominated by an Indian diaspora, most of them IT and Finance professionals, some observations were deeply disturbing. On the face of it, they appeared as infractions of minor laws and possibly to be overlooked, but viewed in the context of the general attitudes and behaviours of my countrymen back home, it leaves you with a sense of unease.

In one instance, I saw a young Indian woman park her car in front of a building’s exit gate despite a clearly displayed prohibition. In the meanwhile, the owner came out and found the exit blocked. First he waited for a couple of minutes, then he gently honked, then he honked again, this time louder and longer. The woman was chatting with someone after dropping her child to the school, completely ignoring the honking that was becoming more desperate and agitated. Eventually, she did arrive to remove the car but seemed in no hurry to do so, nor did she show any signs of concern. The man, a white, then swore and maneuvered his car bypassing her vehicle. Then he came by the side of this woman’s car and let go a barrage of expletives. The woman appeared neither perturbed nor disturbed.

Regrettably such conduct refuses to become uncommon. A discussion with the local law enforcing authorities corroborates it in no qualified terms.

Perils of Behavioural Rigidity
The troubling aspect of this incident that I was watching closely, was not that she had parked her car at a place where she should not have, but the sheer absence of any concern of having done something undesirable with such nonchalance. To me it appeared an extension of a common behaviour back home where barking traffic rules is routine and the response to these violations is to avoid being booked by the traffic constable. On several occasions, the same place where I was staying, I observed Indians brazenly flouting the traffic signals, committing minor infringements putting to peril someone’s safety, and yet not feeling any sense of wrong, concern, shame or guilt. It is possible to explain such lapses on the grounds of lack of familiarization with a new environment, though it misses conviction as these people are here in US because of their marked intellectual capability. But even this facile argument does not explain the repeated recurrence of such incidents where the characters involved are invariably Indians. 

It may be unwise to dismiss this issue by branding it episodic. It is, in fact, symptomatic of a potentially pernicious malaise.

I would argue that if Indians have permanently migrated to a new country and have cast their fate in a different social, cultural milieu, they should  necessarily accept and adopt the new codes of conduct and certainly the laws. And this must happen voluntarily and consciously. The attitudes that could have been considered passable back home in India must be scrupulously and decidedly forgotten and buried.

The implications of not doing so are grave and damaging, to them and their families and equally to the image of India. Being repeatedly being amiss and deficient in following the local rules, will result in a general perception that Indians are unruly and breaching the laws is their nature. It will import their own standing in the community but will also send a signal about the levels of civility and rule of law in India. It is this aspect that demands deeper appreciation and attendant concern.

Be Part of the Place, not Visitor
Every Indian represents a microcosm of India abroad. An Indian settler more so. He or she also gets an opportunity to bring to the local culture and way of life a bit of India. There are certain elements of India that have universal appeal. I wish to argue that some of these elements must engage the active consideration of overseas Indians. Some such elements include the practice of Yoga and demonstrating the science of meditation increasingly being commandeered by others, the value and merits of a family where elders are part of the family, greater involvement in the community work and assuming leadership role wherever one could, and above all, be a model citizen of that land, law abiding, disciplined.
Our conviction of being morally and ethically more evolved, must find manifestation in our conduct. There are instances of Indians taking up intellectual leadership roles successfully and bringing about new cerebral perspective to the countries of their adoption. But this leadership must expand and strengthen. 

India diaspora is already a force to reckon with in some countries, notably UK and US, but such reckoning is largely politics driven and compelled by electoral significance of their population. In some cases, intellectual capital and financial clout are also contributing to their emerging eminence. But the cultural and ethical dimensions of influence that may be more lasting and powerful merits serious attention. A meaningful assimilation embraces a reciprocal enrichment of the native culture and values. Indians are in a unique position to effect that. It will ensure a legitimate and honourable station for those who have chosen to migrate and whose future generations are committed to their new places of domicile.

The other option is to increasingly turn the community into enclaves, perpetuating practices, many of them undesirable and unacceptable in the new milieu, cocooning oneself and condemning the self, the family and the next generation to a life style that increasingly becomes alienated, exclusive  and untenable in a foreign country. It may not perhaps happen immediately but will decidedly descend on them in the long run. The challenge is to adopt, adapt and conquer, not persist, putrefy and perish.

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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