India’s Diverse Diasporas

From India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, by Dietmar Rothermund (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 233-235:

The cultivation of sugar-cane in colonies such as Mauritius and the Natal province of South Africa, in Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam in the Caribbean and Fiji in the Pacific Ocean created settlements of Indian labourers as many stayed on as free labourers after their contracts had expired. In some of these places the Indians emerged as the majority of the population, but with few exceptions they did not rise above the position of labourers. Therefore the diaspora in the ex-sugar colonies is not much of an economic asset to India. Mauritius is an exception to this rule. It has shown encouraging signs of economic growth and its Indian majority dominates the politics of the island but has maintained equitable relations with the other ethnic groups. Mauritius has become a major offshore banking centre for investors who channel their investments in India through the island. This has led to the strange phenomenon whereby tiny Mauritius ranks high among the nations investing in India. Being well aware of the benefits of good relations with Mauritius, India is even prepared to protect the maritime economic zone of the island with the help of its navy….

The era of decolonization did not provide much scope for re-migration from the diaspora to India. Nor did the erstwhile colonial powers invite people of Indian origin to settle in their home countries. There were only two striking exceptions to this rule. The Netherlands became the target of a mass exodus of Indians from Surinam after that colony gained independence in 1975. This was due to the fact that the Dutch had granted citizenship to the people of Surinam and since the Indians did not get along with the Afro-American majority, they left for the Netherlands before their right of citizenship could be revoked. A similar exodus of Indians from Uganda to Great Britain had taken place after Idi Amin had established his tyrannical rule in 1971. The Indians of Uganda were not the offspring of indentured servants but had followed the Uganda railroad. The workers who built that railroad had also come from India, but almost all of them had returned to their homes in the Punjab. The subsequent immigrants from India were for the most part literate Gujaratis who manned the administrative posts of the railway or set up shops in the hinterland which had been opened up by the railway. When these people were persecuted by Idi Amin and shifted to Great Britain they did very well there as a result of their business acumen. This group of the Indian diaspora is of considerable importance for India. But, of course, the Indians who came from East Africa are only part of the Indian diaspora in Great Britain, which also consists of Indian professionals and businessmen who migrated from India to the ex-imperial country in search of greener pastures.

Another post-colonial migration which had some similarity to the export of Indian manpower in colonial times was the recruitment of Indian labour by the countries along the Persian Gulf when those countries earned millions of petro-dollars. This recruitment benefited all South Asian countries. Most of them sent unskilled labourers to the Gulf; India had the lion’s share of skilled administrative jobs. For quite some time the ample remittances of these skilled personnel filled the gap in India’s balance of payments which was usually affected by a negative balance of trade. When the first Gulf War of 1991 disrupted this profitable connection, India was hit very hard, the more so as the disaster was sudden and unexpected. When Indira Gandhi was asked in 1981 whether she could envision an Indian exodus from the Gulf similar to that from East Africa precipitated by Idi Amin, she jauntily replied: ‘The Arabs need US.’ Her successors also took this for granted and were rudely awakened by the Gulf War.

The Indian diaspora in the countries along the Persian Gulf was very different from that everywhere else. First of all it was of very recent origin. This diaspora had no second or third generation members born in the country of residence. Moreover, the Indians who came to the Gulf did not intend to settle there for any length of time. There were many educated people from Kerala among them who simply wanted to earn enough money to build a house back home. Busy construction work in the villages of Kerala provided striking evidence of this trend in the 1980s. Under such conditions there was hardly any incentive to establish Indian community centres in the Gulf countries. The Indian diaspora was not concentrated in anyone place and its members fluctuated. Nevertheless, this was the diaspora which was most important for India, due to the economic effect of its remittances. Other Indian diasporas would be less inclined to send money to India as they would rather invest it where they lived. The occasional support of poor relatives in India did not give rise to substantial remittances.

Today’s Wall Street Journal weighs in on one of the barriers to the expansion of India’s diaspora in the U.S., where “the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin which was founded in 1984 has 42,000 members” (Rothermund, p. 235):

The Chandrayaan-I blasted off about dawn from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. It is expected to reach lunar orbit by November 8. The probe, whose principal goal is to “conduct mineralogical and chemical mapping of the lunar service,” carries five scientific payloads from India and others from NASA and the European Space Agency. With this achievement, India joins the U.S., Japan, Europe, Russia and China in the lunar club.

India deserves congratulations for the Chandrayaan-I, which attests further to that nation’s remarkable strides as an economic and scientific power. That said, we cannot fail to draw attention to how this event bears on the continuing lunacy of Congress in limiting visa quotas for highly skilled immigrants.

American universities are filled with foreign students, not least from India, getting degrees in engineering and science. Many dearly wish to stay and work in the U.S. Instead, we basically kick them out after training them, owing to the Congressional limit of 65,000 H-1B visas, which are used up the day they are released in March.

Would calling this the “pre-emptive export of jobs overseas” make it any less attractive to economic protectionists?

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Filed under anglosphere, Caribbean, economics, education, Fiji, India, migration, South Africa, U.K., U.S., Uganda

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