FICCI in News
Book Review: Our incredibly diverse diaspora
Business Line, Apr 04, 2016
A recent meme that has been doing the rounds of social media shows Republican hopeful Donald Trump thundering “We have to build a wall to keep the immigrants out.” The next image shows a tribe of aboriginal Native Americans saying “Now you tell us”.

Human migration — a natural phenomenon that has going on for several millennia — has become an explosive issue today. Given its link to jobs, economy, society, culture and the violent skirmishes taking place all over the world, migration has become an intense political concern.

According to the Centre for Immigration Studies, there are more than 61 million immigrants and their American-born children under the age of 18 living in the US. Twenty five per cent of the population in six US states are immigrants, finds the study. No wonder it is a recurring topic in American election debates.

What’s going on in the United States is resonating elsewhere in the world. After the recent massacre that rocked Brussels, Belgium has turned on immigrants — especially non-integrated Muslims living in ghettos. Germany, Finland, Sweden are all experiencing unrest between local populations and migrants.

All this has huge significance for India, which has a large diaspora settled in the US, Australia and elsewhere. According to this book, there are 27 million persons of Indian origin settled in over 150 countries. Indeed, the Indian diaspora is a strategic political asset not only for the countries where it has settled in, but also the homeland — it’s an asset that we have seen Prime Minister Modi exploiting.

Given the raging worldwide debate on migration, this book could not have been timelier. It’s an analytic book full of interesting data looking at the politics surrounding Indian emigration from the 19th century to the present.

It gives a global context, has case studies from five continents and looks at various immigration policies, especially devoting a large chunk of space for the US.

But while it may be an academic tome, it is written with a light touch and holds interest throughout as the authors unravel the politics shaping our diaspora.

The myths of movement

The book begins by dealing with the various myths surrounding migration. That people migrate only due to economic compulsions, that movement takes place only in one direction — South to North, that it takes away jobs of locals in the destination country, that it causes unnecessary population growth in country which is getting influx. The authors break these myths by presenting a slew of facts.

Subsequently, without much ado, they get into the meat of the book — the politics in migration. To do that they set the history and context of Indians migrating abroad, the routes taken, the patterns of settlement — in the colonial and post colonial eras. The authors try to determine whether there were any foreign policy changes that caused variations in the pattern of movement.

Next comes a look at how the politics in the countries of destination have shaped Indian movement to these places. The Gulf countries, the US, the UK, parts of Europe and Australia are covered very comprehensively.

It’s a fascinating story of challenges of integration, of confrontation with discrimination, both social and legal, but also one of seizing opportunities.

A diverse Diaspora

Although with globalisation and with initiatives such as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas there have been attempts to mainstream Indian diaspora, there is no real ‘one great Indian diaspora’ point out the authors. It’s by no means a homogenous group, with its diversity based on language, religion and geographical locations and the destination to which they have migrated.

The case study of Canada which has attracted a huge population of Sikh settlers makes for fascinating reading. As does the case study of Mauritius where Indians initially came as slaves, then indentured labour and even women spouses for European settlers.

If the destination country case studies are interesting, then so are the origin state case studies and the home politics. Punjab and Kerala, of course, are the two states from where a significant chunk of movement abroad has taken place, and where NRI remittances fuel the state economies.

As the authors point out, Kerala today has about two million migrants who remit ₹60,000 crore — equivalent to 31 per cent of the state domestic product. One out of every four households in Kerala has a migrant.

But, given the kind of changes taking place in the Gulf economies where most Malayalees migrate to, Kerala could soon be seeing some return migration. Saudi Arabia and a few other GCC countries have new labour policies resulting in a decreasing trend in emigration to these places from Kerala. Also, with the economic slowdown in the Middle East, there’s a trend of returning Malayalees — how the state policy will address this shift will be worth watching.

Gujarat is the third state with a high global diaspora that is spread out from East Africa to the United States. It is also the state where its diaspora is an influential voice and has the highest engagement with local politics.

Managing migration

Migration is a very vast issue with many, many threads to it. In this book, the authors have only touched upon the Indian movement outside the country and not looked at the refugee influx into the country. But even tackling the spread of Indians overseas is a gargantuan and complex task. Despite the challenges, the authors have refrained from the temptation to weave in too many things, and presented a book that is focused and asks a number of good questions.

Author: A Didar Singh is Secretary General of Industry body FICCI and Former Secretary to the Government of India, S Irudaya Rajan is Chair Professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs Research Unit of International Migration, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram.
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