FOR the past two years, a horde of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) has flocked to New Delhi for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Individuals from 60 different countries come as de facto representatives of the 22 million desis who live in them. The bulk of the ‘delegates’ come from the advanced industrial states. Those who organized the celebration had no democratic imperative to ensure the accurate representation of the diaspora: they concentrate on the most wealthy among the diaspora for reasons of their own.
The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s (FICCI) Diaspora Division. FICCI has begun to cultivate the NRIs to increase the foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow to US $5 billion by 2008. The FICCI Diaspora Division has already begun to ‘work in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs in particular and the Government of India in general to forge a constructive and productive relationship with the Indian diaspora.’ The division is eager to use the NRI network to export Indian goods, to garner charitable contributions for social development and to draw upon the special skills among the NRIs to the benefit of India’s commercial and industrial ventures. Given this, the division is quite forthright that its work is ‘specifically [to] focus on strengthening the commercial and economic dimensions of India’s relations with the diaspora,’ to ‘leverage the diaspora’s strengths for India’s economic growth and development, just like China’s bamboo network.’ What else should one expect from FICCI? It certainly can’t have a cultural policy.
What is important here is that the diaspora is being imagined now not so much as unfortunates who have to be championed (as in the 19th century), as the brain drain (in the 1960s and 1970s), or as cultural ambassadors (as in the 1980s). We now have the diaspora represented almost entirely by the very wealthy who reside mainly in the advanced industrial states and whose image is summoned by the term NRI. By ‘NRI’ we certainly don’t mean the taxi drivers in New York City, the sugarcane workers in Guyana or the domestic servants in the Gulf. ‘NRI’ now means the Hinduja clan, Sanjay Kumar and Kanwal Rekhi.
This short essay will offer a vision of the two different kinds of political Indians who populate the diaspora – those of the Red variety, who pioneered militancy and the call for Purna Swaraj in the old days, and those of the Green and Saffron variety, who are active in the promotion of neoliberalism and cruel cultural nationalism. While the latter are the embodiment of the NRI, the former, the Reds, are relegated to the margins of the diaspora.
If the history of the Indian diaspora is remembered only as the history of the NRI, the economically affluent migrant, then the lives of the working-class and of the revolutionary Indians is obscured. The first major wave of modern migration took place from 1834, when working-class migrants from eastern and southern India signed indenture contracts to go to South-East Asia and the Caribbean, and later to Africa. Five million Indians travelled across the dark waters until the indenture programme ended in 1916. ‘I no go no way again, I have to wuk. I have to slave Trinidad,’ sang Moolian of his travails in indentured life. People like Moolian toiled in unfamiliar lands in work regimes that demanded enormous physical and spiritual sacrifice, and yet, they persisted. Many formed organizations to defend their cultural inheritance and later, trade unions to demand their rights as workers and people. Consider this: not only did the Indian diaspora birth the first revolutionary modern desi organization, but it was the Indian diaspora that made Gandhi Indian as well as taught him the arts of mass resistance.
In 1913, long before the formation of the Communist and Socialist movement within India, a group of radical Punjabi migrants in Stockton, California, formed the Ghadar Party. They met in a gurdwara that not only gave them spiritual solace, but also gave them a space for community and political gatherings. Here they formed a party of rebellion and began activities to both overthrow the British Empire and to improve the lot of the migrants on the West Coast of America. In their goals set out at their August 1913 meeting, the founders called upon the organization ‘to liberate India with the force of arms from British servitude and to establish a free and independent India with equal rights for all,’ and it noted, ‘Every member was duty bound to participate in the liberation struggle of the country in which they were resident.’
In one of their many poems/songs that spread their message, the Ghadar Party railed against the quietism of the Indian National Congress.
Kade mangyian millan azadiyan na
Hunde tarliyan naal na raj loko
Karo na minnat ainwe bano na kaiyar
Fardo talwar ihan nahin rahnna
Agge veero arjiyan ne ki banna liya
Zalam firangiyan ne desh kha liya.
(Freedom will not come through supplication.
Political power will not come by appeal.
Don’t offer cowardly petitions.
Lift up the sword, they will not remain.
What have your petitions wrought?
Brutal foreigners have plundered our homeland.)
The Ghadar Party developed a cadre of dedicated freedom fighters, many of who returned to India in jathas to seed a nationwide rebellion against the British Raj. They had no desire for ‘home rule’ or for ‘dyarchy’: they wanted Purna Swaraj long before Gandhi moved the Congress to adopt that resolution on 31 December 1929. In the Party’s newspaper, Ghadar, Hardayal wrote, ‘Tribe after tribe are ready to mutiny. Your voice has reached China, Japan, Manila, Sumatra, Fiji, Java, Singapore, Egypt, Paris, South Africa, South America, East Africa and Panama’ (14 July 1914). The energy of Ghadar swept the Indian diaspora and it produced a generation of radicals within India, such as Bhagat Singh, who moved the Freedom Movement from cooperation to non-cooperation (one of the Ghadar Party’s famous early slogans was, ‘Complete Independence or Non-Cooperation’).
As the peasants and intellectuals of California created an organized form for the struggle, in South Africa the miners and sugarcane workers met a lawyer who learnt the arts of mass non-violent resistance from them. M.K. Gandhi had already begun a struggle alongside the Natal Indian Congress against a poll tax, but in mid-October 1913, he felt the earth move under his feet. Against the poor work conditions, the poll tax and the legislative denial of non-Christian marriages, several thousand Indian miners put down their tools. Led by such organizations as the Johannesburg Tamil Benefit Society, the miners of Newcastle put forward demands, but had no dignified response from the government of Jan Smuts.
Gandhi and the miners tried to force a confrontation when four thousand of them marched illegally into the neighbouring state of Transvaal. Smuts did not arrest them, and hoped that economic necessity would drive the strikers back into the mines. When all seemed lost, not only did workers across Natal go on strike, but they were joined by sugar mill workers, domestic servants, and workers in the produce markets of the main cities. When the recently subdued Zulu peoples began to make overtures to join the movement, Smuts released Gandhi from jail and negotiated a deal. Gandhi, then, not only learnt the power of mass movements, but he also understood the value of a deal. Gandhi returned to India to lead the movement against the British Raj, and he became our hero, whereas the unknown miners, Gandhi’s teachers, are largely forgotten.
In his inaugural address to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 9 January 2004, Prime Minister Vajpayee did mention the history of the indentured migration. He urged the delegates ‘not to forget the pain and sufferings that early Pravasi Bharatiyas had to go through. The injustice meted out to them remains a dark chapter in India’s history. At the same time, their determined struggle against adversity is a source of inspiration for all of us.’ The prime minister, however, disregards the current forms of indenture that mark the diaspora, the harsh treatment meted out to the cyber-coolies and the indentured domestic servants and manual workers whose stories infrequently make it to the mainstream press. ‘If our forefathers were the victims of want and exploitation,’ he says, ‘our children and grandchildren will be the trailblazers of prosperity and a new era in human development marked by justice and universal brotherhood.’
The children and grandchildren of the earlier migrants and the new working-class migrants to the advanced industrial states show us that while formal indenture is not on the cards, the harsh immigration rules and the low-wage work within the US, for instance, makes life almost unbearable. Bodies stuffed into cargo holds to evade immigration patrols are met with employers who hide workers in hovels. Bodies needed for labour are disregarded for their lives. It is the unacknowledged struggles of these bodies that will bring us to justice, not the wishful rhetoric of the current Indian government and its allies in Washington, DC.
Even as the contemporary Indian diaspora in the US is generally seen as a bastion of the NRI, it contains an immensely diverse population. While there are some Indian Americans who flourish economically, there are too many who do not. A full quarter of Indian Americans live in households with incomes below $25,000 – even though Indian Americans reported the highest median household income ($49,696). This means that the rate of inequality in our community here is very high, with a few millionaires and a considerable number who live in the basement of US society. You can’t go into an urban hospital in the US without being treated by either an Indian doctor or an Indian nurse. Yet, a fifth of Indian Americans have no health insurance, a higher percentage than the national average.1
The class interests of these migrants is well served by a few militant desis who are so active on the ground and yet invisible to the media and within India. Organizations like the New York Taxi Workers’ Association (that led the monumental 1998 strike of 24,000 taxi drivers, more than half of them South Asian) and Workers’ Awaaz in New York City, are joined by unionists like Zahid Ali Syed, who is the desi representative of the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride, a nationwide effort to change immigration laws to benefit workers. After 9/11, with the crackdown on Muslims, many of whom are desis, some young desis moved their inspirational organization, DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving – to demand that the government release the names of those who have been detained.
On the terrain of cultural change, women’s organizations (such as Sakhi and Narika), gay and lesbian organizations (such as Trikone and the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association), youth organizations (such as Youth Solidarity Summer and South Asian Awareness Network) and others, are vigilant in both the fight against racism and the fight for a just desi culture, not one that looks to an antediluvian heritage for succour.
Finally, desis in the US have also produced strong organizations and individuals dedicated to planetary solidarity. The anti-war and the social justice movements are peopled by plenty of desis, just as organizations like FOIL provide a network to go out and serve the struggle. Or take the case of Radhika Sainath. Here’s a young woman from Orange County, California, who decided to join the International Solidarity Movement to defend Palestinian rights over Israeli aggression. She went to Israel, stood side by side with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and then sat in an Israeli jail because the government targeted her as undesirable. ‘What does the Israeli government have to fear from nonviolent civil disobedience against the Occupation,’ Sainath asks, ‘that it would spend so much time, money and energy on the abduction and arrest of a 25 year old female US nonviolent human rights activist?’
Red Indians have a proud history in the diaspora – it is what motivates us to continue in our struggle for global social justice from within the belly of the beast.
After India won its independence, Prime Minister Nehru looked out over the diaspora and pledged India’s support to those who might face oppression overseas. Ten years later, he said that the Indians overseas ‘should always give primary consideration to the interests of the people of those countries; they should never allow themselves to be placed in a position of exploiting the people of those countries, cooperate with them and help them, while maintaining their own dignity and self-respect.’ Even as the Indian government cherished those who claimed India as their ‘homeland’, Nehru recognized that they had to make their lives where they lay their heads.
Such was the policy of the Indian government until the 1970s. In that decade, the economic dislocations of the Indian economy, the Congress’ abandonment of economic nationalism and the growth of cruel cultural nationalism in its place, led to a reassessment of the role of the diaspora. In 1976, the Emergency government announced, ‘steps to encourage investment by non-resident Indians.’ The newly minted NRI had a new responsibility: no longer was this highly skilled sector to be denigrated as a brain drain, but it was now to be encouraged as a ‘cash cow’ to help the Indian state increase its foreign exchange reserves.
In 1982, Manmohan Singh of the Indian Planning Commission said, ‘Indian communities abroad are noted for their hard work, initiative, and enterprise. As a result, they have accumulated large resources of investible funds.’ The Indian government needed this money to cover its newly expanded military and technical imports. But the NRIs failed the government: in the crucial period of liberalization from 1991 to 1994, only eight per cent of foreign direct investment into India came from the NRIs, and after this initial burst of enthusiasm the numbers have decreased. The NRI, nevertheless, is now part of the economic plans of the liberalized state, as is evident at the FICCI Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.
When the BJP government came to power in 1998, the NRI had a special place in its heart. Significant sections of the NRI population backed the BJP’s attempt to turn Ayodhya into Jerusalem. In 1970, some proponents of Hindutva created the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) in New York City. The VHPA wanted to start a sanghatan movement, to gather together the Hindus in America. In the early years it had little success mainly because the first migrants to take advantage of the open door for professionals after 1965 had little interest in such matters. These professionals did set up numerous Indian cultural organizations, but they had more interest in fellowship than in the cruelty of Hindutva.
The VHPA brought together all the social anxieties of the migrants and put themselves forward as the solution. It urged desis to live epic lives that serve as a mode of social control against the second generation desis and women. They cultivated the removal of desis from US social and political life in order to get greater access to the funds of the NRIs for their own activities. Rather than ask for desis to join their non-desi neighbours to change the structures in the US that oppressed them, they asked them to go inward, to channel their political and social energy into the liberation of a ‘homeland’ that they felt guilty for having abandoned.
This ostrich-like attitude toward the US and the demand that the NRI give money for the VHP-RSS type activity is what we call Yankee Hindutva. In August 1998, the VHPA participated in New York City’s annual India Day Parade for the very first time, perhaps to celebrate the arrival of the BJP to governance in Delhi. Indeed, after the May 1998 nuclear tests, Indian-American newspapers bore advertisements that congratulated the BJP government for its audacity. The radioactive policies of the ‘homeland’ allowed certain fragments of Yankee Hindutva to feel emboldened to act in public.
If a fraction of the billions of dollars held by NRIs came into India as investments, this would allow the BJP one more swadeshi fig leaf over the ravages of capitalist globalization. In 1999, therefore, the BJP pushed the People of Indian Origin card, for those who could gain special economic privileges in India for a fee (about $300). Most analysts believe that the high fees encouraged only five thousand people to secure these cards. Four years later, the BJP-led cabinet and then the Parliament allowed NRIs from strategic parts of the world to hold dual citizenship: the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, parts of the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, and Singapore. The children and grandchildren of the indentured labourers are given lip-service by the prime minister, but no access to dual citizenship: Trinidadians, Guyanese and South African Indians do not have the kind of capital that the BJP government wants to see enter the Indian economy.
The total income of the NRIs in the US, Canada, and the EU is in excess of $160 billion, almost half of India’s GDP. But, as Praful Bidwai wrote after the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, ‘Many wealthy NRIs probably have few loyalties to India.’ He cites the example of Lakshmi Mittal, the wealthiest NRI and so-called King of Steel, who said of his investments, ‘I am happy there is an NRI policy. But the government should not look at $50 billion from NRIs. It should look at $500 billion from MNCs. I do not think any NRI would invest in a major way because of emotional attachment. They want returns, they want results. I love my country. That is fine. But I must get returns as well.’ For good reason the NRI is reviled.
The BJP-led government and the opportunistic NRIs must not be allowed to offer their caricature of migration without contest. In these other lands, this Dusra Hindustan, there is a diversity that defies the NRI stereotype, and there is a history of anti-imperialist struggle that is far from Hindutva’s cruel cultural nationalism that wants nothing more than to suck-up to Empire. The dot.comrades who live in the heritage of the Red Indians are a far cry from the dot.cons who cherish the Green and the Saffron above all else.
Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos, University of California Press, 2000.
Madhulika Khandelwal, Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City, Cornell University Press, 2002.
Padma Rangaswamy, Namaste America: Indian Immigrants in an American City, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Sandhya Shukla, India Abroad: Diasporic Cultures of Postwar America and England, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Sunaina Maira, Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, Temple University Press, 2002.
Vijay Prashad, Karma of Brown Folk, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
1. One reason for our immense success is the canniness of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service that only allowed highly educated Indians into the country. Of those who migrated into the US between 1965 and 1977, 83% held advanced degrees. They created the groundwork for the Indian American success stories. But, equally, that of the Indians who migrated to the US between 1987 and 1990, a fifth had no high school education, a tenth remain unemployed and a fifth live in poverty.