Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy
January 15, 2003
A little over four years ago the prime minister ventured to add a third salutation to Lal Bahadur Shastri's 'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan' -- 'Jai Vigyan.' If he added 'Jai Politician,' then I for one certainly missed it! But take a look at the list of the 10 people honoured during the Pravasi Bharatiya celebrations.
Sir Anerood Jugnauth, prime minister of Mauritius. The former premier of British Columbia Ujjal Dosanjh. Lord Navnit Dholakia, a member of Britain's House of Lords. Fatima Meer, a political activist from South Africa. S Samy, Malaysia's works minister. Sir Sridath Rampal, former secretary general of the Commonwealth.
In other words, six of the 10 are connected to politics one way or the other. With all due respect to this sextet, is politics really what India is renowned for, either at home or abroad?
Amazingly, there wasn't a single scientist or engineer, author or artist on the list. The last four of the 10 were businessmen -- McKinsey Managing Director Rajat Gupta, Kanakshi Gokaldas Khimji from Oman, Kenya's Manu Chandaria, and Bob Naroomal Harilela from Hong Kong. Where were, to name but two, Vinod Dham, father of the Pentium chip, and M Night Shyamalan, the director creating waves in Hollywood? Or for that matter Amartya Sen and V S Naipaul?
Naipaul made news only because of his allegation that Mahatma Gandhi had been a 'failure' in South Africa. And because his wife Nadira wondered aloud whether there would be any place in India for those who did not have Rama and Sita in their hearts.
This biased selection was scarcely the only blemish to mar the first Pravasiya Bharatiya meet. I am afraid the list of men and women invited to address the meet utterly failed to mirror the diversity of the Indian Diaspora. Of the 200 speakers, how many Sikhs were there? Only one, I am afraid -- and even he was not really on the list of scheduled speakers. Taking a minute to point out precisely this fact, he told the audience, "What would I have told my friends back in Canada had I not got up now? At least now I can claim the last man to speak was a Sardarji!"
At the end of the day, several people were complaining there had been an overdose of resident Indians, and not enough of the Pravasiya Bharatiyas for whom the meet had been organised.
By the way that term 'Pravasiya' needs to be defined precisely. As I understand, it covers both Indians living abroad as well as people of Indian origin. The Government of India had good news for the second group -- a promise of dual citizenship. But what goodies did it hold out to those who choose not to surrender their citizenship even as they work abroad?
Being a Keralite, I am acutely conscious of how many of this latter group there are. For half a century, Keralites have been leaving their homes to work abroad as nurses and plumbers, as teachers and drivers. Theirs are not glamorous occupations, and their faces shall never be as famous as those of the Czars of Silicon Valley. But the money they sent back has made Kerala the state that earns more hard currency than any other in India.
So, what did the Pravasiya Bharatiya meet hold out for this segment? Were their voices even heard at this conference?
Here is a small suggestion: let them exercise the right of other Indians -- the proud privilege of voting. Is there any legal or technical reason why they should not be given the facility of a postal ballot? Other countries, notably the United States and Australia, give their citizens such a right, so there is no reason why we should not do so.
According to my own rough and ready calculations, there would be almost five million Indians who are eager to exercise such a facility if given to them. Why not let them participate in Lok Sabha and assembly polls? If nothing else, it would encourage Indian citizens to register with their respective embassies, thus creating a valuable database.
I spoke of Keralites, but there seemed to be little awareness of peninsular, trans-Vindhyan India as a whole. The prime minister's speechwriter had him say India had never been a naval power. Quite obviously, the man who wrote that had no clue about South Indian history. He had no idea of the imperial Cholas, whose navy conquered Lanka and then contested the command of eastern seas with Sri Vijaya, the empire that ruled Malaysia and Indonesia. He had no idea of the Vijayanagara emperors who set up a dockyard in the distant Maldives. And he didn't even know of the yards in Surat and Mumbai whose ships fought Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar...
While the Pravasiya Bharatiya conference was a good idea, its execution left much to be desired. It also overshadowed the more businesslike NRI Investment Conference held in Hyderabad, to be followed by another in Kochi. The organisers, should there be a second such meet, would do well to remember that India is known for more than politics alone, and that there is an India outside Delhi and its immediate environs.
Finally, don't forget there are areas where the interests of Indians in India converge with those of the Pravasiya Bharatiyas. More than one person told me, off the record, they would love to come back, but hesitated when confronted by the pollution, the power-cuts, and the brackish water. If anybody in Shiela Dixit's administration is listening, clean air, water, and power are just as much of a concern for us.