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The coup that changed India's Diaspora policy

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: January 07, 2015 17:27 IST
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As India gears up to honour its pravasis on January 9 to mark their contribution in the nation’s development, presents perspectives from eminent writers on the Diaspora.

Kicking off the series is Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, who points out that the change of the Diaspora policy put in place by Rajiv Gandhi following the military coup in Fiji and his decision to stand by them, was the one defining moment in India's dealings with its overseas family.

Also read: A look back in anxiety ' Friends of India
When the third ranking officer of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, marched Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra and his ‘Indian dominated’ cabinet at gunpoint to waiting military trucks and drove off in the first coup in the South Pacific in May 1987, he was not aware that he would be the cause of a change in India’s Diaspora policy.

For the first time in history, India battled an action by a foreign government against the people of Indian origin by imposing sanctions against Fiji, by getting it expelled from the Commonwealth and by raising the issue at the United Nations.

In similar situations in the past elsewhere, India had merely welcomed the Indians who wanted to return to India and made some efforts to repatriate their assets, as in the cases of Yangon and Uganda.

It was evident that Rabuka’s coup was meant to disenfranchise Fiji citizens of Indian origin, but in accordance with the established policy of non-interference in internal affairs in such situations, I refrained, as the Indian high commissioner, from making any statements or visiting the detained cabinet.

During the three days that I had no communication link with New Delhi, I remained totally impartial and held some confidential discussions with the only constitutional authority, the Governor General.

To Rabuka, who was my golf partner earlier, I merely formally conveyed our concern for the lives and properties of the Indian community.

The instructions I received when the communications were restored were a surprise. I was told to support the Indian community against discrimination and the external affairs ministry issued an official statement to this effect. I was also summoned to Delhi for a briefing.

What I heard there from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Minister of State Natwar Singh reflected a change in the policy laid out by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in Parliament to the effect that Indian migrants should be loyal to their countries of adoption and that India would remain alive to their welfare and interests. 

I was told that I should return to Fiji and work openly for the restoration of democracy. 

Trade sanctions were announced, but the high commission was not withdrawn because it was decided that it was necessary to give moral support to the Fiji Indians.

The new policy, I was told, was that India would stand by their children abroad if there was any affront to their rights and dignity. 

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said that he had asked the Indian Diaspora to contribute resources and technology for India’s development and the response was heartening.

In that situation, he argued, it should be incumbent on him to support the Indian communities everywhere, if they had any grievances.

It was thus that the new Diaspora policy was born.

The new policy was much appreciated by Fiji Indians, though others raised eyebrows about external intervention. 

After two years of uneasy relationship, I was asked to leave Fiji and the mission itself was closed.

But after three more coups and 27 years, democracy has been restored in Fiji and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a successful visit there.

Much credit is being given to India’s tough stand in 1987, and I received a warm welcome when I visited Fiji after 25 years.

Rajiv Gandhi’s new Diaspora policy, which paid off in Fiji, had its repercussions worldwide. 

The overseas Indian affairs ministry, the Pravasi Divas, the Pravasi Samman, the Person of Indian Origin card, the Overseas Citizen of India card and many other gestures are taken for granted today, but these would not have been possible without the change of the Diaspora policy put in place by Rajiv Gandhi, following the military coup in Fiji and his decision to stand by them, abandoning inhibitions about intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

It was a new doctrine like the Responsibility to Protect, which developed subsequently at the United Nations.

No doubt, the Government of India and the Diaspora have rediscovered each other after the new policy was put in place.

Any number of initiatives of the gove­rnment and the community can be cited to show how they have helped each other in different countries and situations. 

They have learnt to complement each other as it has been realized that the standing of the community is an asset to the government in building relationships and that good relationship between the host country and India is in the interest of the community.

A remarkable fact is that the political parties are unanimous in the view that overseas Indians should be treated with consideration and respect and that no stone should be left unturned to meet their cultural and other aspirations.

In return, the universal expectation is that they will visit India, send remittances for their relatives and invest in small and big enterprises in India.

Even those communities, which are not in a position to do any of these, are also covered by the many measures that successive governments have taken for the welfare of the overseas Indians.

The Indians overseas belong to a broad and diverse spectrum, ranging from the unsung and unacknowledged poor rice farmers in Myanmar to the billionaire businessmen in the US, Europe and the Gulf. 

As such, their capacity to contribute to India and their expectations of India are also diverse.

The workers in the Gulf, for example, have existential problems arising out of actions of unscrupulous agents and employers. The government has reached several bilateral agreements with the Gulf States to resolve these issues, bearing in mind that India has a major stake in their continuation in the Gulf.

The biggest remittances come from the workers in the Gulf and not from the professionals in the developed countries, who tend to keep their assets elsewhere.

In the US and Europe, including the UK, the Indian communities look up to India as a cultural and social anchor, more as a nostalgic homeland, rather than a place they like to return to permanently. 

They would like India to acknowledge their success and involve them in India’s development. They have supported Indian policies and generated interest in India in their host countries.

The India Caucus in the US Congress and the Friends of India in the US Senate are outstanding examples of the contribution they have made to India-US relations. 

The community played an exceptionally active role at the time of the US sanctions against India following the nuclear tests in 1998 and the long negotiations on the nuclear deal from 2005 to 2008.

But the support of the community is neither automatic nor continuous. They have been critical on occasions, particularly on consular services and the facilities they get in India with regard to travel, ownership of properties etc.

Their remittances and investments remain low and the contribution from the US was minimal even when the Resurgence of India Bond was issued in 1998. But, on the whole, they take their roles as unofficial ambassadors of India quite seriously and rise to the occasion when India needs them.

The Indian communities in Africa, the Caribbean and Fiji have only emotional and sentimental linkages with India. They make no demands on India, but they preserve their way of life, rituals and religions, as their ancestors knew them. They welcome Indian leaders, artists, film stars etc and bask in the glow of India’s clout in the world.

India’s policy towards overseas Ind­ians has benefitted India as well as its children abroad, but there is great potential for further growth in the relationship. 

The wealth and technology that they wield are immense and they can be of use to India in crucial sectors, provided the community develops faith in the government and considers the growth of India inherently of benefit to them. The facilities and benefits that India extends to them can also be farther expanded.

The recent relaxation of visa restrictions has been welcomed. The demand for dual citizenship and right to vote in Indian elections raise constitutional and legal issues, but ways should be found to meet the aspirations of overseas Indians.

Overseas Indians constitute India’s ‘soft power’, which should be deployed in the country’s best interest. 

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and governor for India at the IAEA; executive vice chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and director general of Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

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