As India feted people of Indian origin living overseas as part of the 8th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), a young student was murdered in Australia by attackers who many believed were racially motivated. The attack was the latest in over a year of violence targeting Indians in Australia. In fact, a story that ran in Mail Today on 9 January revealed that 1 out of 35 students studying in Victoria is susceptible to such attacks, establishing that these are not random instances.
The murder also exposed a gross oversight of the ethos that underlies the notion of PBD. Its focus, ever since the concept was first unveiled, has been stuck in a groove of paying obeisance to the haves; most Indians and actually the rest of the world think that the 25 million Indians residing overseas, especially non-resident Indians (NRIs), are either successful businessmen, scholars, techies or health professionals. That’s far from the truth.
This may have much to do with the manner in which the mother country has renewed its relations with overseas Indians in the last decade—a period coinciding with a dramatic reworking of the country’s foreign policy doctrine—after a hiatus.
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The incidents in Australia and elsewhere suggest that the time may have come to effect a course correction and ensure that India also focuses on the lesser known, especially the working class NRIs (also significant contributors to the billions of dollars in remittances that accrue every year), and proceed beyond verbal sympathies.
Most memories, at least for me, of NRIs are those of returning relatives who passed on hand-me-downs, which in socialist India was akin to shopping on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, leaving us eternally obliged.
This view of the benign NRI changed dramatically in 1990-91, when NRIs voted with their feet and withdrew their monies—mostly arbitrage funds, borrowed abroad cheaply and parked in deposits in India that promised returns four-five times greater. That proved to be the final straw on the proverbial camel’s back as foreign currency reserves hit rock bottom, forcing India to ink a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.
Thereafter, for over a decade, NRIs became a four-letter word. However, the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee forced a change in this perception. Even as he overturned India’s foreign policy paradigm and bravely forged a new relationship with the US, Vajpayee also began to solicit well-placed NRIs, particularly in the US. Not only were they accomplished, many of them were regular donors to American politicians—and money talks, particularly in the US.
It eventually led to the first PBD celebration in 2003, something that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance took to the next level. It established the “ministry of non-residential lndian affairs” in May 2004 and then rechristened it as the ministry of overseas Indian affairs four months later. However, it never managed to shed its initial image as a forum for the powerful.
It is obviously an oversight.
The popularization of Indian icons, at least in the US, is because of regular middle-class immigrants—unlike their richer and more privileged counterparts, they do not reside in exclusive suburbs and instead locate themselves within the precincts of the city.
This class of immigrants wear their culture—whether it be their dress, bindis, mehendi, food and so on—on their sleeve; and, since they use the regular transport system to commute, they are most visible and hence often the first point of contact.
It is not a surprise, therefore, that the first popular icons in the American mind space was the bindi (remember the dot buster gang that went around attacking women wearing bindis), mehendi (popularized by Madonna) and the chicken-tikka masala (right out of our dhabas). Stretching this logic, it is also no surprise then, that it is this very working class group of Indian immigrants who are often the targets of racial attacks.
The first step to resolve a problem is to recognize it. This year’s PBD devoted a session to studying the concerns of Indian expatriates working in the Gulf. Very apt indeed, but what good will it do if not a single working class expatriate was invited to be part of the panel?
Some of them work and live in the most difficult of circumstances; it is fine to say that it was their choice, but another to not address their welfare, while looking at overseas Indians as a group.
The story of Habib Hussain (provided he is telling the truth) is revealing. Hussain was a stowaway in the Air India flight from Saudi Arabia. Since his passport was impounded by his employers, he knew of no other way to get out of the country but smuggle himself on board the flight by hiding in the toilet.
The moral of the story, if any, is that all overseas Indians are important and the government needs to demonstrate it. Alternatively, it would be what the German writer Bertolt Brecht said:
“Some there are who live in darkness
Some who live in light
We see those in light, those in darkness out of sight.”
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at email@example.com