Punjabi diaspora and homeland relations
SHINDER S. THANDI
HARDLY a day passes without some news of a Punjabi diaspora related issue, be it a cultural exchange programme, a human trafficking case or a Non-Resident Punjabi (hereafter NRP) investment story. Over the past couple of years there have been a number of both positive and negative media stories, for example of how new NRP ‘grooms’ have been exploiting and abusing Punjabi ‘brides’ and how many NRPs are ‘giving something back’ to their ancestral villages through funding philanthropic projects. Recently there was a two day workshop in Jalandhar on Sikh diasporan philanthropy, perhaps the first such conference in South Asia to acknowledge this growing dimension of diasporan activity.
The growing interest in diaspora and diaspora related issues are an outcome of the spread and diffusion of globalisation technologies which have led to the widening, deepening and transformation of diaspora-homeland relations. In many countries across the globe, diasporas are playing an important and constructive role in the economic development of their homeland. Sure, diasporas can play a negative role too since they have the ability to sponsor separatism and communal hatred, whether through funding Khalistani or Kashmiri militants or communalist groups such as the VHP. Hence, they can directly threaten national security and sovereignty. But a broad consensus has developed which suggests that diasporas are, on the whole, a positive asset which need to be harnessed for the greater good of the homeland country.
Further, the global debate has also shifted from being about the ‘brain drain’ to one of ‘brain gain’ or ‘brain circulation’. Evidence of successful growth of business and entrepreneurial activity by Punjabis settled abroad calls for a reassessment of Punjabi diaspora’s potential role. The Indian and Punjab governments have also, although rather belatedly, woken up to this fact and now recognize that a healthy engagement with its diaspora, particularly the financial relations, is an important activity which they can potentially leverage to aid economic development. The annual Pravasi Bhartiya Divas has become a major vehicle for political and economic engagement and for showcasing diasporan achievement.
This paper focuses on some selected aspects of existing Punjabi diaspora-homeland relations with a view to strengthening their positive aspects. But first, a disclaimer. Whilst any assessment needs to consider the contribution of the wider Punjabi diaspora – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim migrants who left Punjab during the British period and the post-independent migrants from both East and West Punjab – the focus will primarily be on Sikh Punjabi migrants as this is the community on which much of the scholarship has been focused.
Scholarship on West Punjabis is by comparison limited and in any case writers tend to submerge their Punjabi identity under pan Pakistani or Muslim identity.1 Research on diaspora Hindu Punjabis is also limited although there are some notable exceptions such as the work of Raj2 where issues of cultural identity are directly confronted. After a brief assessment of the emergence and geographical spread of Punjabi diaspora communities, I focus on the nature of diaspora-homeland links and how these have been transformed and can be further strengthened and harnessed to increase their potential role in both inculcating a distinct Punjabi cultural identity and for aiding the development process in Indian Punjab. Drawing upon experiences of other diaspora communities, I conclude with a review of some broad policy implications for homeland governments.
Overseas Punjabis are now an established migrant community whose migration roots can be traced back nearly 150 years. Total Punjabi migration, predominantly of Sikhs but also of Hindus and Muslims, is estimated at anywhere between 2-2.5 million but no precise estimates are available. The number of Punjabis hailing from West Punjab is particularly difficult to estimate, as census forms offer them a choice of declaring either their Pakistani nationality and/or Muslim identity, thus lumping them together with similar ethnic and religious groups. Punjabi Hindus represent perhaps the smallest number of the three categories along with other marginal groups from Punjab.
Punjabi migration to various overseas locations in Southeast and East Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and North America reflected the changing socio-economic conditions in the Punjab (creating supply side ‘push’ factors) and the changing structure of employment opportunities abroad (generating demand side ‘pull’ factors). Unlike overseas migration from other parts of India, Punjabi migration really commenced during the final quarter of the 19th century and was very much a product of the strategic and influential position which Punjab acquired within the British Empire. This influence manifested itself in growing military recruitment and increased investment in agriculture leading to substantial growth in agricultural export revenues.
Punjab’s formal incorporation into the British Empire after 1849 resulted in a movement of Punjabis to other regions of the empire such as Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. The majority of these pioneer migrants were Sikhs who originated mainly from the rural areas of Punjab and many went abroad either through military postings, police service or for other economic operations. The first quarter of the 20th century saw further expansion of this migration, especially to East Africa, associated with construction of railways and the new trading and business opportunities which this created.3
Having been exposed to wider horizons through the imperial connection, the numbers migrating independently to pursue better economic opportunities also expanded, especially to the Pacific coasts of Canada and USA. Further, unlike the earlier ‘managed’ migrations associated with Empire duties, much of this independent migration was confined to the central doaba districts of Punjab. However, constraints such as hostile immigration policies, especially in North America, and high transportation costs limited the further expansion of this form of migration.
In the post-independent period, as favourable conditions returned, the doaba was again to emerge as the dominant region for sending migrants abroad, especially to UK and North America. Soon after the first OPEC price hike of 1973-74, the Gulf region also became an attractive destination for Punjabis and finally, the ending of the Cold War after 1989 opened up new land and sea routes to Punjabi migrants, with many settling in Greece, Italy and Spain. Over time more districts and social groups became entangled in the migration process. Thus the emergence and geographical spread of the Punjabi transnational community was no accident – it very much reflected the changing requirements of the British Empire during the colonial period and the shifting internal and external environments in the post-independence period.
Not surprisingly then, it is in the doaba region where we currently witness the most striking impact of transnational village practices, especially on economic and social development.4 Historical experience and global exposure and visibility of migrant wealth continues to act as an important spur for further migration from Punjab as Punjabis, especially the youth, are almost intoxicated with desire to migrate and make a life abroad. However, as immigration controls have tightened, a range of avenues, both legal and illegal – such as sports and musical tours, cultural and religious visits and marriages – are being explored and exploited to circumvent them.
Acknowledging the growing importance of diasporas in the global economy, the World Bank noted:
‘Diasporas serve as information channels for the flow of information, market intelligence, capital and skills. They may supplement formal channels that rely on market institutions, providing a way for migrants to conduct transactions in an atmosphere of trust. In this way they act to offset information asymmetries and other market failures. Modern diasporas… expedite business transactions by resolving monitoring problems, reducing opportunism, and building reputation and ethnic trust based on networking. As migration continues, diasporas will expand, tying together regions and continents. Even if governments attempt to slow down the process, communications, technology and human relationships will maintain this trend.’
‘The South Asian diaspora, with a network reaching from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and North America, has a net worth of between $150 billion and $300 billion. Its potential remains to be tapped in the early 21st century.’5
Agrowing literature identifies a range of mechanisms and channels through which diasporas impact upon different levels of the economy: at macroeconomic, regional, community and household levels. Collectively all of these result in a positive impact on economic and social development. A macro-model developed by Orozco6 places emphasis on the five Ts usually associated with diasporas: tourism, transportation, telecommunications, trade and transmission of monetary remittances. Each of the Ts has substantial direct and indirect benefits and these effects are clearly visible in many places in India today, particularly in Punjab.
Regular diaspora heritage tourism, for instance, has emerged as a major foreign exchange earner and generates extra domestic demand and boosts profits in a number of sub-sectors in the economy. Transportation, especially airlines and domestic travel companies such as airport taxis, buses and trains etc. all benefit greatly from more regular visits by diaspora communities. There has been an explosion in international phone call traffic, leading to massive investment in communications infrastructure and profits for phone companies. Diaspora communities’ insatiable appetite for authentic foodstuff, artifacts, ethnic clothes, jewellery, musical instruments, books, dvds, vcds, cds and so on have led to a dramatic development of trade in cultural goods.
Bollywood and the revival of Punjabi cinema and its various by-products such as visiting musical troupes of singers and dancers earn substantial revenues for all persons involved in the production, distribution and retail side. The rise in the wedding economy alone generates substantial revenues for clothing and jewellery retailers in Punjab. We need to remember that all these channels and linkages are multi-directional as can be see in many examples of successful crossover of goods (eg. Kingfisher or Cobra beer) between diaspora and homeland locations. In other words, just as the overseas Punjabis have developed a more home-ward orientation, so has the homeland developed a more diaspora-focused orientation. This is most clearly visible in cultural trade.
Diaspora finance, particularly its most popular form – remittance money sent home by migrants – remains the most visible economic impact of migration at the household level. According to 2005 World Bank statistics, South Asia received $32 billion (19% of the global total) of which India’s share was $22 billion – having risen rapidly from the $13 billion recorded in 2001. Compare this to the $5-6 billion received by India from multinational investment. The documented amounts vastly underestimate the actual inflow of remittances because large sums come through non-bank informal channels such as family, friends and kinship networks.
Notwithstanding the debate about whether these remittances are used ‘productively’ or ‘unproductively’, they have the potential to significantly improve the welfare of migrant households.7 Overwhelming evidence now suggests that remittances play a complex yet vital role at the household, community and regional levels. They have an enormous potential to transform and improve rural livelihoods by raising living standards, providing access to health care and education, and by empowering communities whose economic welfare is threatened by the indifference and bureaucratic politics of the local state. This is particularly the case in Punjab with its continuing fiscal crisis and consequent cutback in expenditure on rural development.8 Sadly though, despite this contribution, even now hardly any serious academic research has been undertaken to measure the significance of the impact and potential role NRPs can plays in the Punjab region.
An important characteristic of diasporas is that as a group they retain a meaningful link with their homeland. These linkages develop over time and become multilayered. They emerge as important means for the identification of a historical memory with the homeland and for maintaining some form of connectedness. Linkages can range from being exclusive maintenance of family ties, village/community welfare associations, and different forms of economic, political, social, religious and cultural exchanges. All these different forms of linkages are thriving in contemporary Punjab.
After years of struggle for acceptance as equal citizens and winning many legal battles over cultural and religious rights in their newly adopted homes, overseas Punjabis are now in a position to articulate and celebrate their hyphenated cultural identity with great zeal. The ‘balle balle’ Punjabi culture has become totally transplanted in diaspora locations and is visibly expressed through music, radio, television, film and literature. Further, globalisation technologies and forces of integration have enabled Punjabis to emerge as transnational agents enmeshed in various forms of familial, cultural, social, community and at times, political networks across different geographical spaces.
Globalisation has reformulated and reshaped these linkages in two fundamental ways: they have transformed from being unidirectional to multi-directional and are increasingly influenced by intra-diaspora exchanges within a transnational space. In other words, Punjabis in Australia link up with those in UK, USA and Canada and vice versa, and their link with Punjab – as the anchor – is just one aspect of their transnational linkages. For example, Inter-net discussion groups such as Sikh Diaspora and Learning Zone discuss issues relating to the global Punjabi community and local events, viz. the banning of turbans in French government schools or the staging of the controversial play Behzti in Birmingham, UK, quickly transform into global community issues. A summary of the main types of transnational linkages within the transnational Punjabi community is provided in Table 1.
Examples of Linkages Within the Punjabi Transnational Community
1)Family and Person Networks
Social Remittances (Intangibles)
– ideas and values
– attitudes and behaviour
– social capital
– cultural tourism
– sports exchanges
_ musical exchanges
– educational exchanges
– Internet Discussion Groups
– wedding and bridal services
– video/audio/CD exchanges
– print media
– Bollywood/Punjabi cinema
– Asian Satellite TV
– visiting religious leaders
– visiting sants/sadhus/
– visiting kirtan/dhadi jathas
– video/audio cassettes/cds
– Joint celebration of religious
– live media broadcasts from
holy places such as Amritsar/
Anandpur Sahib on important
– overseas branches of main
Punjabi and Indian political
Parties and other political
– links with factional groups,
eg. Hindutva or pro-Khalistan
– human rights organizations
– development of ‘advocacy
networks’ with other NGOs
Facilities for NRIs
– trading opportunities, e.g.
– promotion of tourism
– trade fairs
– financial services
– property transactions/
– educational services
3) Indian e-business
– philanthropic projects and
– educational establishments
– village infrastructure
– village sports tournaments
– charitable organisations
such as Pingalwara, Amritsar
or Amar Dass Mission
– municipal/village websites
– Websites on Indian
each major tradition
The role of diaspora philanthropy – private giving for public good – has a relatively long history in Punjab and there are examples of Punjabis undertaking this activity in the early decades of the last century.9 However, its magnitude, quality and creativity has become more significant in the last couple of decades, with many diaspora funded projects in Punjab clearly illustrating the tangible benefits of such activity. Although it is difficult to identify the driving force behind diaspora philanthropy, arguments such as civic duty, loyalty to village kith and kin, gratitude, payback, sense of identity and so on are often used by migrants to justify donations to projects. There may also be deeper cultural factors which play a role for some communities, such as for example the Sikhs. Sikh philosophy and Rahit Maryada places an important emphasis on philanthropy and altruism – cultural values emphasize the importance of daswandh and daan (sharing of fruits of labour), seva (selfless service) and sarbat da bhalla (welfare of all mankind) and these norms are greatly emphasized by community leaders when raising funds for faith-based philanthropy, especially gurdwaras, in raising money for village infrastructure projects or for improvements in community facilities.
Although there have always been wealthy individuals and social entrepreneurs who initiate philanthropic projects on their own and in their own way, most community remittances currently being mobilised in Punjab are through the formation of village welfare associations. Over the past ten years or so there has been a rapid growth in the formation of such village associations in diaspora locations which are now performing a number of functions – from encouraging sports and cultural exchanges, to buying political influence and to pursuit of low-scale development goals for fellow-villagers. A counterpart association is often set up in the village in the homeland to facilitate exchange.
These associations, both in the diaspora and in the homeland, are increasingly motivated to take advantage of the upsurge in family remittances and increased desire to extend economic help to their homelands. Many donors become persuaded after seeing the tangible demonstration effects of family remittances – if remittances have the capacity to greatly improve living standards of migrant households, then surely they can do the same for the village as a whole? There are now numerous villages in Punjab where varying levels of diaspora funded rural development projects are being undertaken. Three excellent examples that are worth noting are: (i) Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust (near Banga, dist. Nawanshahr; (ii) National Rural Development Society, Palahi (near Phagwara, dist. Kapurthala and (iii) Village Life Improvement Board (VLIB), Kharaudi (near Mahilpur, dist. Hoshiarpur). Table 2 below identifies the main types of activities currently being undertaken by village associations in Punjab.10
Range of Philanthropic Activities by Migrants in Punjab Villages
Kind of Activity
gurdwara donations, clothes, computers
hospitals, nursing college, parks, sports complexes, street paving and lighting, mortuaries, sewerage and water treatment, vehicles
Human development and recreational
scholarships, sports facilities and sports tournaments, libraries, IT equipment, health equipment
income generating programmes for the community such as waste and water recycling
Both India and Punjab have belatedly recognized their role in fostering cultural identities amongst diaspora communities and considerable effort has gone into identifying the right type of outreach policies. The Indian government’s establishment of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora is an example of one such initiative.11 The inauguration of an annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is also a welcome sign, as is the promise to grant dual nationality and perhaps even voting rights.
However, there are still considerable constraints – partly because of previous indifference, the politicisation of previous linkages and partly due to the non-existence of a clear and cohesive Indian diaspora identity amongst India’s many diasporas. Many Punjabis, for instance, identify more with their regional or religious identity than with their Indian identity, especially after Operation Bluestar in 1984. The Pakistani Punjabis too, although for different reasons, are becoming more conscious of their regional identity than a pan Pakistani one and the recent increase in greater Punjab-Punjab cross-border contact may eventually lead to the revival of the earlier but fractured regional-based Punjabi identity.
In evaluating policies of countries that have successfully leveraged their diaspora, especially in the form of higher financial investment, three main elements appear to be important. First, the need for creation of strong networks amongst emigrants. At present the most successful forms of development-oriented finance are coming from individual or family remittances and from village welfare associations. My own research on Punjab has shown that private and community-oriented finance is leading the way in promoting rural development. Besides courting only wealthy Punjabis who may have initiated and contributed towards philanthropic projects, there is a need to strengthen wider networks so that more investment flows into trade and industry of the region.
The second element for successful mobilisation is that of developing an infrastructure that would facilitate communications between diaspora communities and their homeland. The Web offers an enormous potential for leaders in the homeland and diaspora communities to exchange and share information relatively instantly and cheaply. Such information can pertain to business and investment opportunities, skill shortages, database on diaspora-based and homeland experts, progress reports on ongoing or new philanthropic projects, organizations offering opportunities for social and cultural exchanges etc. Punjab has already taken some token initiatives to provide this facilitation but these remain largely undeveloped, under-resourced and politicised. As regards the latter, for instance, whenever Akali or Congress politicians have visited abroad, their appeal remains limited exclusively to within their own political party networks. Also, the NRI Sabha was a potential vehicle for this type of activity but its politicisation has rendered it relatively toothless.
The third and final element in leveraging the diaspora is to introduce financial incentives and innovative mechanisms for luring migrant money. Appealing to the Punjabi migrant’s sense of cultural identity or patriotic loyalty will not be sufficient if the migrant’s perception is that the incentives on offer are not transparent or are discretionary and unfair. To their credit, recent Punjab governments have attempted to introduce some aspects of the above policies, but often it has been the case of too little, too late. The continuing perception of Punjab as a state with poor governance, lacking in transparency and having a meddlesome bureaucracy means that potential diaspora-based investors shy away.
A major concern with respect to the potential role of diaspora’s relates to the sustainability of engagement. For instance, will remittances continue to rise or decline over time? Can they be sustained? Would second or third generation diaspora Punjabis be as eager to show a homeward orientation as their parents or grandparents? It is possible that the financial flows may continue in a steady upward direction if linkages become more durable and are built on networks of social capital and trust. But what is most important in successfully mobilizing the diaspora is the need to build transparency, accountability and trust in diaspora-homeland relations.
* Shinder S. Thandi is co-editor of Punjabi Identity in Global Context (with Pritam Singh). OUP, Delhi, 1999; and People on the Move: Punjabi Colonial and Post-Colonial Migration (with Ian Talbot). OUP, Karachi, 2004. This paper is based on a longer chapter on Mobilizing Diaspora-Homeland Relations in his forthcoming book on The Sikh Diaspora.
1. Two good examples of this, as reflected in the book titles, are Alison Shaw’s Kinship and Continuity: Pakistani Families in Britain. Routledge, 2000; and Pnina Werbner’s Imagined Diaspora Among Manchester Muslims. James Currey, 2002.
2. See Dhooleka S. Raj, Where Are You From? Middle Class Migrants in the Modern World. University of California Press, 2003.
3. Parminder Bhachu’s Twice Migrants: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain. Tavistock, London, 1985, provides a useful profile of Punjabi experience in East Africa.
4. For further details see S. S. Thandi, ‘Vilayati Paisa: Some Reflections on the Potential of Diaspora Finance in the Socio-Economic Development of Punjab’, International Journal of Punjab Studies, Vol.7, No. 2, July-December 2000, pp. 323-341.
5. World Bank, World Development Report 1999/2000: Entering the 21st Century. Washington, 2000.
6. Manuel Orozco, The Impact of Migration in the Caribbean and the Central American Region. Focal Policy paper-03-03. Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Ottawa, Ontario, 2003.
7. See, for instance, World Bank, Global Economic Prospects: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration. Washington, 2006.
8. See Margaret Walton-Roberts, ‘Returning, Remitting, Reshaping: Non Resident Indians and the Transformation of Society and Space in Punjab, India’, in P. Crang, C. Dwyer, P. Jackson (eds), Transnational Spaces. Routledge, London, 2004, pp. 78-103.
9. See Margaret Walton-Roberts, ‘Transnational Educational Fundraising in Punjab: Old Practices, New Readings’, International Journal of Punjab Studies, Vol. 12, No.1, Spring 2005, pp. 129-152.
10. Further details of these projects are given in Thandi (2000).
11. L.M.Singhvi, et al., Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, Non-Resident Indian and Persons of Indian Origin Division, Dec. 2001. Accessed at http://www.indiandiaspora.nic.in/contents.htm