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Pravasi Special: Bharat Mata and her children

Last updated on: January 08, 2015 10:33 IST

Over the years, pravasis have become a constituency, to be tapped, cultivated, and honoured, or at the very minimum to be listened to, says Ambassador B S Prakash.

As India gears up to honour its pravasis to mark their contribution in the nation’s development, presents different perspectives on the Diaspora.

Earlier in the series:

T P Sreenivasan: The coup that changed India's diaspora policy

George Joseph: A look back in anxiety

Shreekant Sambrani: Friends of India

Roopa Unnikrishnan: 'India has stayed in my blood'

Has the Government of India done something right after all in its approach towards NRIs -- a term that I use loosely to catch all the shades of non-resident Indians?

Has there been a changing dynamics between the Bharatavasi -- the resident Indian -- and his pravasi cousin, and today a greater appreciation of one by the other?

All Indian diplomats engaged in their work with the Indian Diaspora in different parts of the world think about this issue, but I had a specific encounter that made me reflect about our particularities.

I was the Indian Ambassador in Brazil two years ago. 

One day, I received a call from a very senior official in the foreign ministry requesting me to meet him as he wanted ‘to benefit by my perspective on an issue’ as he termed it. 

This in itself was not surprising since Brazil and India exchanged views on issues like BRICS or climate change or ethanol.

But the subject that he mentioned was a bit unusual: He said he wanted to learn from us about how to treat their overseas citizens. 

“This is not for me to tell you,” I thought, but went dutifully anyway.

During our meeting, he put forward his question like this: Brazil had a successful community in the US and in some parts of Europe, though it was in no way comparable in numbers or influence to the large Indian expatriate community that he knew about.

Brazil had decided to engage them and see how they could attract some of them to contribute to Brazil’s development in science and technology, and their advanced sectors in petroleum and aerospace, in particular.

After all, some of their top talent was with NASA, in Silicon Valley or in international finance. 

However, they did not have any mechanisms in place; their embassies had never been asked to cultivate their overseas citizens. 

They saw the Indian embassies doing it energetically all over the world. Could I tell him as to how we had gone about organising this effort? I was naturally delighted and also flattered by this compliment from a friendly colleague. 

I began by telling him how it was our policy for decades to actively engage with the Indian non-residents of various shades -- People of Indian Origin who had migrated centuries ago, but had retained an umbilical cultural link with the motherland while being loyal to the countries of their citizenship; large numbers of workers who were Indian citizens toiling in the Gulf and sending valuable remittances back home; more recent migrants who were again citizens of another country but retained familial and emotional ties to India; IT or financial professionals who regarded themselves as global citizens, whatever be the colour of their passports -- thus many categories and in many parts of the world -- but how India had a soft spot for all of them and how we in embassies had been tasked to keep in touch with them.

I tried to explain all this giving examples from my own experiences in Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the US and how it was a different community in its character in each place.

I also spoke of our varied initiatives and activities: the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the awards and recognitions, the outreach efforts by prime ministers and chief ministers of states, the investment initiatives and schemes to facilitate their entry or stay in India almost on par with Indian citizens.  

“All very impressive. But how and who do you recognise as their representatives? How is their apex body elected or selected which deals with your government?” he asked.

Now, it was my turn to be befuddled. 

“We do not do that. We cannot do that. We try to deal with everybody,” I replied after understanding that what he had in mind was a formal and structured body to represent their non-residents, who could negotiate a kind of an agreement with the government on their rights and obligations. 

A kind of a trade union, as it were, of the community outside to talk to the government about mutual expectations and promises; an alien concept to me. 

My time in the US had taught me that there were at least three Malayalam associations and tens of others organised on the basis of language, profession, region and what not.

To try to figure out who to identify as a Pravasi Bharatiya itself was a challenge; to try to determine who their legitimate representatives are, and that too on a global basis -- whew! -- a complex and needless challenge.

And yet after some study, I came to realise that in Brazil (and in some other countries) the relationship between the country and its external residents has been shaped by that kind of contractual give and take relationship.

Elections are held in the non-resident community in each country, an apex body is formed, which talks to the government with an agenda of what they can do for the home country and vice versa. 

We know that our approach is rather different. 

The bonds between Bharat Mata and her children outside -- as PM NaMo describes the relationship -- is more an emotional link based on culture, religion, language and family than a transactional contract.

We may not have a fully defined policy, but our thinking has evolved as India has changed.

Indian migration has been in waves: In the beginning, based on economic necessity and undertaken in hardship; later motivated by a search for better opportunity; and yet later, as an affirmation of Indian capabilities and talent.

These different aspects still drive the mi­gration, but today there is already a 25 million-plus strong presence of Indians in oth­er countries, larger than the population of many countries, and an ever expanding populace ‘of Indian origin’ because of their families. 

For the government, it is impossible to put them in one category and have a policy that encompasses all their diversities and desires. Some need succor in times of distress; some, incentives to invest; others, only opportunities to impart their knowledge or skills; and yet others, honour and recognition.

In the first decades, Nehru rightly emphasised that the loyalty of People of Indian Origin who had settled down elsewhere (whether in Sri Lanka or Fiji or Uga­nda) was to the country where they were citizens and not to the country of origin.

India could not take care of its non-citizens based on history and civilisational links, but a residual attachment remained.

In the '70s and '80s, we recognised that a large number of our citizens working in difficult circumstances outside were helping India enormously through their remittances. Some steps were initiated ostensibly for their welfare, but mainly to try and prevent exploitation.

However, the face of the GoI for the labour in the Gulf was that of the greedy customs inspector at the airport, or the difficult emigration official.

For others, better off, government meant an inefficient faceless apparatus that harassed them at every point, whether for renewal of a passport or the grant of a visa.

I believe that compared to that mindset, the situation has changed. 

Gradually, the Indian establishment has realised the value of overseas Indians and their contribution, both material and intangible, for improving India’s economy as also image.

Over the years, the pravasis of various hues have become a constituency, to be tapped, cultivated, and honoured, or at the very minimum to be listened to.

From my own experience, I know that no Indian diplomat can ignore this constituency, though our capacity for dealing with them may vary depending on the competence and imagination of the individual officer or embassy.

In the last two decades, the nature of the relationship has changed qualitatively. 

Vajpayee knew his vast Indian-American audience intimately and forged political links with them, which benefited the party and the country.

A milestone was reached when the influential Indian community in the US was mobilised effectively to lobby for the passage of the nuclear bill through the US Congress.

Modi is now taking this process of mobilizstion to new heights by staging events where the political and the financial reach of the community is on public display in countries that he visits and also back home in India.

On part of the community, an India that does well makes them proud. 

India’s achievements at home are applauded enthusiastically by its children abroad, just as their accomplishments are rejoiced over, here.

It is a virtuous cycle and we may see new spin-offs from this mutually reinforcing engagement in the years ahead.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador who dealt with Indian communities in the US, Uganda, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, among other countries.

Ambassador B S Prakash