Home > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai
Politics of Exclusion, Inclusion
January 23, 2003
The Indian public has just witnessed three bizarre contradictions. First, the government lays on a gigantic festival for Pravasi Bharatiyas to felicitate Persons of Indian Origin living abroad. This no-expenses-barred celebration, with a galaxy of non-resident stars and Cabinet ministers, is interspersed with seminars and lavish banquets, and ends at Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the same government impounds the passports of our Kashmiri citizens -- Hurriyat Conference leaders -- to prevent them from going abroad.
Second, our ministers speak in high moral tones of India's great inclusiveness. But the home minister threatens a witchhunt of millions of people who are merely suspected to be 'foreigners' -- from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Mr Advani claims, without evidence, that as many as 15 million Bangladeshis live illegally in India, besides 11,500 Pakistanis. They are to be summarily deported.
Third, our leaders prattle on about vasudhaiva kutumbakam (all the world is our family), including the 20-odd million PIO settled in 130 countries. But the government says it will only grant dual citizenship to some 4.5 million PIO living in a handful of countries: the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore and the European Union.
At work here are mutually incompatible, notions of inclusion and exclusion. How can we extend citizenship to foreign nationals, but deny elementary civil and political rights to those who we vehemently claim are our citizens -- Kashmiris from the valley, Muslims from Gujarat, and for long years, people from the Northeast? What, apart from 'dollar apartheid' -- as some PIO call it -- explains the exclusion of the vast majority of PIO living in countries with the strongest, richest, continuity with India, such as Mauritius, Fiji, Surinam or Guyana?
There are other false premises in official thinking: in the description of PIO as India's 'Diaspora;' in Mr Vajpayee's celebration of PIO as 'catalysts of change,' the notion that PIO will eagerly 'bring in investment,' and that citizenship should be bestowed on people who don't form part of our political community. Ms Fatima Meer, the great African National Congress stalwart, questions the term 'Indian Diaspora.' She says the term has 'Zionist connotations,' like the right of return to the 'homeland,' Israel. Indians living overseas lay no claim to a 'homeland:' 'We are not an Indian Diaspora... We have struggled long and hard to be called South African,' says Ms Meer. 'The last racist South African government even offered free passage and money to PIO to return to India.' They refused.
PIO are heterogeneous, and comprise four distinct groups.
First, and oldest, are those who were despatched as 'indentured' labour to other colonies in the 19th century: hardy, humble, peasants.
Second are the one million-plus Indians who went to Britain in the last century, some via East Africa. Most of them were petty shopkeepers, blue-collar workers, bus conductors and postal clerks.
The third group comprises the post-1973 temporary migrants to the Gulf -- workers without full residency rights.
The fourth groups consists of affluent professionals and businessmen who migrated to the US, Canada and Western Europe from the mid-1960s onwards.
One jarring note in the recent celebrations was the excessive emphasis on the last group, and discrimination against the others.
Mr Vajpayee indulged in hype when he called PIO 'catalysts of change.' Change where? Not in India, which they (barring the first group) left, largely willingly. PIO in Silicon Valley have doubtless contributed to information technology, and scholars and writers like Amartya Sen and V S Naipaul have distinguished themselves worldwide. But their contributions are global, not residence-specific. Very few PIO have established worthy institutions in India to catalyse change. Sen's Pratichi Trust is only just beginning.
Third, PIO, especially from the OECD [Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development] countries, possess enormous wealth. Their annual income is estimated at $160 billion, or almost half of India's gross domestic product. In the US, they form the single richest ethnic group, wealthier even than the Japanese. But they account for a mere nine percent of total investment flows into India over the past decade, and only four percent of foreign direct investment. By contrast, our Gulf-based working class people send in four times more in remittances. Despite their low incomes, they also accounted for the largest investment in Resurgent India Bonds. Without their remittances, India's economy could have hardly survived the 1970s' oil shocks. Affluent NRIs invest in India mainly out of the profit motive. Patriotism comes second.
Many wealthy NRIs probably have few loyalties to India. As Mr L N Mittal, the world's richest (non) Indian, recently said: 'I am happy there is an NRI policy. But the government should not look at $50 billion from NRIs... it should look at $500 billion from MNCs. I do not think any NRI would invest in a major way because of emotional attachment... they want returns, they want results... I love my country... that is fine... But I must get returns as well.' Thus, it is not surprising that NRIs/PIO suddenly withdrew $1.5 billion from Indian banks, plunging this economy into a grave crisis in 1990-91.
It is equally unrealistic to expect PIO to transfer technology to India gratis, or selflessly dedicate themselves to turning India into a 'knowledge superpower.' So far only a few IT-based NRIs like Kanwal Rekhi have funded technology development in the IITs. But their total contributions don't even exceed Mr Bill Gates'! And nobody thinks his investment will technologically transform India.
That leaves the issue of dual citizenship. Citizenship is not about passports, residence, or even emotional bonds. It is about participating in the life of a nation, as an organic member of its polis, or political community. Citizenship is not a matter of bargaining over investment deposits and diplomatic advantage. It is about universal rights equally available to all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity. The PIO Card is a pragmatic concept insofar as it permits a non-citizen to own some property or not to have to apply for a visa for 10 years, etc. -- in return for a payment of $500. But citizenship is a different matter.
Dual citizenship may not even be practical. Not all of the world's nations accept the concept. Some, like the US, could validly object to the idea of citizenship based on ethnic identity. Citizens in most democracies have rights defined in non-ethnic terms. An exception is Israel which defines itself as a state of all Jewish people. That's no model for India.
Why then is the government so keen on pampering affluent NRIs/PIO from the OECD? The answer lies in the politics of the BJP. This politics strikes a national-chauvinist chord in the hearts of certain NRIs. It fits their social conservatism. The BJP always prefers short-term, ad hoc, Right-wing, money-driven solutions to problems. But in the present case, it has a special interest in promoting the feel-good factor among North American and Briltish PIO. They are the principal source of its overseas funding. This has been documented by the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, which has traced donations collected by the India Development and Relief Fund from US companies like Cisco and Apple and transferred to the VHP. Britain's Channel 4 television and Charity Commission too have found links between Hindu charities and Gujarat's communalists. These shadowy links are part of the international network of an organisation which otherwise drums up xenophobic hysteria, for example against Ms Sonia Gandhi, for political gains.
Parallel to the BJP's narrow parochial agenda was a rift of sorts at the Pravasi 'jamboree.' On one side were US and Hong Kong-based businessmen, with sympathies for exclusivist nationalism. The reference to Ram and Sita brought a sharp reaction from Nadira, wife of V S Naipaul, who has himself moved close to a pro-Hindutva position. Panchajanya editor Tarun Vijay attacked her as a 'Non-resident Pakistani.'
On the other side were liberal-Left scholars like Amartya Sen, Meghnad Desai and Bhikhu Parekh, who stressed the inclusiveness of Indian culture. Sen brilliantly argued against the kupamanduk (frog-in-the-well) attitude, and for the idea that some of Ancient India's greatest accomplishments were the result of its unique interaction with the civilisations of China, Arabia, Greece and Rome. Nadira delivered a fitting rebuff to Vijay: she was born in Kenya, carried a British passport, and was married to 'a Brahmin' from Trinidad. She is no 'non-resident Pakistani.' She said the exchange reminded her of her days in Pakistan: 'When I questioned Islamabad's human rights record..., they attacked me... [and] ridiculed me for not knowing Urdu, and they said I was sympathetic to Hindus...'
Is this the kind of intolerance we want to emulate? Should we, like Mr Narendra Modi, study how Pakistan's fundamentalist madrassas work in order to create 'Hindu' schools of communal violence? Isn't it time to reject this insane politics?