A Study of the Indian Diaspora: Preliminaries

A Study of the Indian Diaspora

The migration patterns of the Indian diaspora have been prolific over centuries. Officially denoted Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) or Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs), they comprise the world’s largest diaspora with the highest annual migratory flows. The Ministry of External Affairs reported in 2018 that approximately 32 million persons of Indian birth or ancestry were residing outside India, with more than 2.5 million emigrating every year. The Indian diaspora is a heterogeneous and dynamic group with varied histories of loss, reunification, discrimination, ostracization, and assimilation. Though contemporary exigencies do demand a comprehensive diaspora policy, it has proven difficult for the Indian government to design uniform policies for them. They also occupy elite positions in the societies, economies, and polities of their host countries, performing essential dual roles. They actively engage in policy formulation and support mobilisation through control over the reins of decision-making. They also passively influence the same through successful advocacy bolstered by sheer numerical strength. For these reasons (and many others), the Indian diaspora form a bridge between their countries of origin and residence. They facilitate key linkages between governments and civil societies and are predominantly based on familial and kinship ties. Indeed, conversations regarding globalisation and the increasing connectedness of the varied milieus across the world, arise from diasporic discourses and their migratory patterns. The movement of the Indian people, their ideas, and capital, over centuries, have brought significant transformations not only in cultures and societies abroad but also within India.

The purpose of this article is to provide a preliminary perspective to the study of the Indian diaspora. First, it will review the evolution of the diaspora through an understanding of the various waves of migration that dispersed them across the world. Second, it will scrutinise the important issues complicating the formation of a uniform diaspora policy. Finally, it will discern the link between foreign policy and diaspora policy.


The ancestors of the contemporary Indian diaspora left the erstwhile subcontinent through various waves of migrations. Scholars generally emphasise four – often intermingling – currents of migration, each characterised by their own specific backdrop, qualities, and conditions. Not all of them were voluntary; most were coerced by economic deprivation or colonial subjugation. These differences produced diversities in the ways in which migrants reproduced their ‘Indian culture’ overseas and how they were received and assimilated into the host societies. These patterns also vary in terms of age, numbers, and their historical contexts of emergence. Where Indian diasporic communities have inhabited areas like East Africa for more than six generations, they are recent arrivals in the Gulf States. Where they are politically and economically dominant in Mauritius and Fiji, elsewhere, they may comprise small minorities.

The first migratory flow comprised of traders – generally Indian coastal communities – that emigrated to East Africa, East Asia, and Central Asia in pre-colonial times, developing profitable economic relationships. This trade diaspora commonly consisted of temporary or circular migration, where while one generation would settle kin networks in a particular country, the next would pursue employment elsewhere. These populations acted as bridges between their cultures and that of the host country, frequently adopting more cosmopolitan lifestyle due to diverse cultural exposure. Though Indian trading communities began to settle abroad prominently and permanently from the nineteenth century, their long history of migration and trading connections brought transformations in the role of women and circulation of capital. The discovery of Indus valley seals in Central Asia proved that Indus periphery populations had migrated to and settled in the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) to trade as early as 2250-1700 BC. In the sixteenth century, the modern merchant Indian diaspora emerged in Central Asia and Arabia – with the first such community established in Astrakhan (under the Tsardom of Russia) in 1610 – and remained active for more than four centuries. The Multanis from Multan, Shikarpur, and Mawar settled as merchants and bankers in Safavid Persia, and Hindu traders established a caravanserai in Kerman, though populations plummeted due to the Ottoman and Afghan wars between 1722 and 1727. Sikh and Hindu traders sold indigo, precious metals, and textiles to their Sarmarqandi and Bukharani counterparts in Kandahar and engaged in moneylending in Kabul during the 1700s. Peshawari and Shikarpuri Indian traders invested in grain, Ferghana cotton, and legal moneylending in the Bukharan Emirate as they fled from Russian Turkestan. The second important migratory current may be located between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the First World War, in the European colonial era. As the slave trade was abolished in the early nineteenth century, more than one million indentured BhojpuriAwadhi, and Girmitiya labourers were transported to European cash-crop­­­ plantation colonies under the Indian indenture system as substitutes for slave labour. Unlike their predecessors, their migration was forced. Though they intended to return to India, many eventually settled and created new homelands in parts of the Caribbean – Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, and Tobago, Suriname, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Belize, Barbados, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia; in the South Pacific and Oceania – Fiji, Réunion, Seychelles; in the Malay Peninsula – Malaysia and Singapore; in East Africa – Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda; and South Africa. Diasporic discourses regarding this wave of migration have involved travel and working conditions of the labourers, nature of the contracts, number of returnees, and varied reproductions of Indian culture abroad. These were not the only populations migrating during this time, however. Some Indians also migrated as clerks and teachers to colonies overseas under the colonial expansion system, based on collaboration between the British and their subjects. Gujarati and Sindhi traders also settled in the British colonies in the Arabian Peninsula, Aden, Oman, Bahrain, Dubai, PunjabiRajasthaniSindhiBaloch, and Kashmiri cameleers were brought to Australia between the 1860s and the 1930s. The third current involves multiple migrations, each varyingly contentious. The Partition threw the divided subcontinent into violence and dispossession. Fears of religious minoritization drew Muslims from India into East and West Pakistan and Hindus from Pakistan into India in different waves of migration, generating controversies regarding citizenship and nationhood that persist even today. Post-war shortages in Europe led to the employment and immigration of Indians into the region in the 1940s and 1950s, while the oil rush in the Middle East in the same decades found large populations from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh occupy mid-and low-level positions in the petroleum sector. In the 1960s, a new class of highly-educated Indian professionals – doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators – began to migrate to USA and UK, compelled by the paucities of employment and better standards of living at home. These numbers have increased exponentially in the twenty-first century as Indian IT and business professionals continue to emigrate abroad and bolster the Indian economy through remittances and foreign direct investments. This current of migration also includes the migration of Punjabis to Canada in the 1960s to escape the rising violence in their home state and the movement of Goans to Portugal after Goa was annexed by India in 1961. A fourth current of ‘twice-migrants’ also developed in the post-war period, comprised of Indians who migrated out of their host countries for political rather than economic exigencies. These included Indian indentured labourers in Suriname eventually settling in the Netherlands or those in Uganda escaping persecution under Idi Amin’s regime and migrating to Europe and USA. These diverse populations of traders, professionals, and labourers may have experienced stirrings of ancestral cultural ties with the Indian’ homeland’, but they did not re-migrate to India and instead developed their economic, political, and cultural ties elsewhere. Indeed, the diversities of the Indian diaspora mirror the pluralities within the country. Even as these populations tend to reproduce their own religions, cultures, and familial patterns abroad, the adjustment of caste and language to local populations was a difficult task for first-generation migrants and possibly even for their descendants. The navigation of distinct identities under the umbrella of ‘Indianness’ and the assimilation necessary for peaceful inhabitation abroad continues to foster heterogeneous experiences for the Indian diaspora.

Important Issues

The first issue complicating diaspora policy is a definitional one. Though overseas Indians are interchangeably referred to as NRIs and OCIs, these two terms differ in their implications. The non-resident status is, strictly speaking, the tax category of a citizen who has not resided in India for at least 182 days in a financial year or 365 days spread out over four consecutive years and at least 60 days in that year, under Section 6 of the Income Tax Act (1961). Person of Indian Origin (PIO) was a form of identification for foreign citizens (except nationals of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) who had held an Indian passport, whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were permanent residents of India as defined under the Government of India Act (1935), or whose spouse was an Indian citizen or a PIO. After Prime Minister Modi announced on 28th September 2014 that the PIO and OCI cards would be merged, the PIO scheme was withdrawn and merged with the OCI scheme on 9th January 2015, with the Bureau of Immigration allowing PIO cardholders to convert their cards till 31st December 2022. The OCI status is a model of pseudo-dual citizenship emerging after decades of efforts by political leaders. Though the Constitution of India does not permit full dual citizenship, the OCI card is effectively a long-term visa affording residency and other rights with certain restrictions on political participation and employment in public service. The Indian diaspora is also deeply committed to their diverse cultural identities and has sought to transfer these value systems to succeeding generations. Though the Indian government has attempted to deepen these endeavours through models of cultural, religious, linguistic, and educational interaction, it has proved difficult to formulate a holistic policy. The government has also invested in strengthening linkages between NRI or OCIs and India in the education sector, based on the recommendations of the Expert Group on the Role of Education in strengthening linkages between the Diaspora and India constituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The differing aspirations of various sections of the diaspora in this regard have necessitated the formulation of multi-pronged strategies to meet the demand for quality school education in India, mainly from diaspora in the Gulf. The government is also considering productive ways to utilise ethnic diasporic media to better communication between the Indian public and the diaspora, to prevent miscommunication and lack of understanding. A key issue is the contribution of the Indian diaspora to economic development through investment, trade, industrial development, and tourism. Recognising the importance of the diaspora in this regard, the government has formulated fiscal initiatives to utilise the expertise in management, financial, banking, corporate, and trade sectors available in the diaspora on a mutually beneficial basis, to yield economic benefits for India. Though inflows in foreign direct investment and skill transfers have improved over the last two decades, problems have arisen due to bureaucratic delays in receiving remittances, high rates of fraud on NRI bank deposits, and delays in grievance procedures regarding lapses in share and debenture investments. India is also developing more constructive networks based on skill-sharing and technology transfer in the fields of healthcare and science and technology to generate foreign exchange and improve research and development. Paucities in infrastructure and regulatory structures have created significant difficulties, however, and various high-level committees have recommended the strengthening of institutional frameworks to better communication between India and medical or science professionals belonging to the diaspora. While the diaspora is eager to donate large sums for development causes in India, research has found that regulatory barriers and bureaucratic apathy and hostility have frustrated the efforts of genuine NRI or OCI philanthropists and deprived the country of the benefits of these donations. High-level committees have also signalled concern about the difficulties faced by Indian diaspora while in India, including demands for illegal gratification from consular, customs, and immigration officials, poor airport facilities, demands for bribes when issuing driving licenses, fraudulent encashment of NRI or OCI fixed deposits in public sector banks using forged Powers of Attorney, and a myriad other harassment from government officials. If the standards of transparency, accountability and efficiency in handling the Indian diaspora is not urgently bettered through policy reforms, it is unlikely that India would be able to deepen its relationship with them. Indeed, the most pervasive request from across the Indian diaspora is the establishment of an integrated mechanism for liaison and effective intervention with official authorities such as the police, central and state governments, local district administrations, public works departments, investment promotion bureaus, schools, banks, education and welfare departments, and other specialised bodies, to ensure ease in diasporic interaction and engagement with India. Another persistent demand from the diasporic community in the Global North is the grant of dual citizenship, currently impossible under the constitutional scheme and the Citizenship Acts. The government had recognised that allowing certain advantages of citizenship to the diaspora would facilitate investment and philanthropic contributions to India’s social, economic, technological transformations, and thus introduced the OCI scheme. However, the lack of clarity regarding the precise extent of citizenship-like rights granted by this scheme and its consequences for the larger Indian polity has ensured that the appropriateness of the scheme remains to be evaluated.

Foreign policy and diaspora policy

The emergence of the Indian diaspora as powerful entities catalysing social, political, and economic change in the international and domestic spheres has rendered it an important component of soft power in foreign policy strategy. India’s contemporary diaspora strategy recognises the strategic value of these overseas populations and seeks a convergence with foreign policy as well. Though the Modi government has concertedly pursued deepened relationships with the Indian diaspora, intending to harness its loyalties and skills, this was not always the case. With some notable exceptions, India’s policies for productive engagement with the diaspora have been sporadic and sparse.

During the colonial rule, though British interests were at the forefront of foreign policy, the government was also keenly interested in protecting the varying concerns of Indian expatriates as they were British subjects residing elsewhere in the British Empire, contributing to the colonial cause. This focus on overseas Indians was multidimensional, however. It was not only the British who had diasporic interests. The political elites of the Indian National Congress (INC) sent delegate deputations seeking solidarity from Indian expatriates. The concerns of Indians abroad were essential to the INC’s movement, especially as several expatriates like Adi Patel, Chhedi Jagan, and Koya led the freedom struggle and political mobilisation in their respective host countries. The Gadar movement, the Komagata Maru incident, and the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army), initiated by Indians abroad, had far-reaching political implications at home. Indian labour migrants also sent remittances to their families back home, which impacted the economy of the fledgling Indian State striving to overthrow colonial rule. This symbiotic relationship between home and diaspora underwent a paradigm shift in 1947. The Nehruvian foreign policy of non-alignment focused on anti-imperialism, anti-apartheid, and self-reliance in economic development and sought to distance itself from Indians who had remained abroad through a policy of active disassociation. This was not surprising. Political leaders were at that time attempting to construct a wholly Indian identity in a wholly sovereign State and believed that external loyalties would disadvantage that genesis. Jawaharlal Nehru announced that Indian expatriates should consider themselves citizens of their host countries and encouraged integration with the host cultures. Though Lal Bahadur Shastri entered into an agreement with Srimavo Bandaranaike – the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka – to resolve the Tamil concerns in the State, the Nehruvian trend of disengagement from diaspora was continued by successive governments till the 1980s. Though Nehruvian idealism was transformed into liberalism under Indira Gandhi, there was no change in the diaspora policy. In fact, the Prime Minister became particularly unpopular due to her reaction to the East African Indian crisis between 1968 and 1972. However, the ongoing oil shock and balance of payment crisis prompted the government to pursue a remittance-centric approach of limited engagement with the diaspora. A slight shift in diaspora policy may be observed as Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign policy focused on third-world cooperation instead of realism. The government sought to resolve the Fiji Indian crisis of 1986, which had strained Indo-Fiji relations, invited diasporic talents like Sam Pitroda, and established the Department of Indian Overseas Affairs in 1984. However, it was not until the end of the Cold War and the related transformations in international relations that traces of definitive diaspora policy began to emerge. The emergence of a multipolar foreign policy, structural shifts in the global economy, and the foreign reserve crisis of the 1990s impelled the Narasimha Rao government to pursue the drastic economic reforms of liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation. In this environment, it became evident that the Indian diaspora presented a host of benefits to India’s newly open economy. As the foreign exchange crisis was resolved due to substantial diasporic remittance and investment, and the lobbying efforts of the diasporic community in USA finalised the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement and justified India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil War in 1999, the Indian government transformed its outlook towards its diaspora. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recognised in its Chennai Declaration (1999) that social, cultural, economic, and emotional bonds of “great Indian family” with India must be strengthened, as they “are a rich reservoir of intellectual, managerial and entrepreneurial resources.” This generated comprehensive changes in long- and short-term diaspora engagement policies by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, including the appointment of High-Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, the establishment of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 9th January 2000 by the Ministry of External Affairs. Subsequently, the OCI scheme was launched in 2006 under the Manmohan Singh government. All of these formed the foundation of a structured policy, spearheading constructive diasporic engagement.

The significant presence of the Indian diaspora across the world has had important diplomatic implications. The mistreatment of Indian workers in the Gulf States and their displacement due to the First Gulf War and the wars in Iraq, Kuwait, and Libya – all not only affected India’s relationship with these countries but also led to a reduction in remittances and worsening of the balance of payments crisis. The racial attacks plaguing Indians in Australia and the ban on Sikhs wearing turbans in France affected India’s relationships with these countries as well, and sustained diplomatic pressure was exerted in this regard. The Indian diaspora has also been involved in domestic politics for decades, even during policies of diasporic disengagement. Diaspora in USA and UK displayed solidarity with anti-emergency groups in the 1970s and continued to fund state elections in Punjab, Gujarat, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. While there are several obvious benefits to an involved and participating Indian diaspora, there may be negative internal security implications as well. Diaspora groups have been reported to fund sub-nationalist or ethno-nationalist movements that threaten national territorial integrity. Various fundamentalist and separatist movements led by extremist groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed or Indian Mujahideen in Kashmir, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka and dispersed across India, the Khalistani movement in Punjab, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, and the United Liberation Front of Asom in the Northeast, have received significant financial, ideological, logistical, and political support from wealthy Indian diaspora, who mobilise their resources through illegal hawala channels to fund violence and destabilise the Indian State. It is not only affluent overseas Indians who participate in these activities, however. The diversity of the Indian diaspora and their frequent disenchantment with the government that has failed to formulate comprehensive policies for them have made them vulnerable to indoctrination. Indian intelligence agencies have stated that Indian migrants in the Gulf – destitute and alienated – are indoctrinated by external agencies like Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), transformed into sleeper cells located across the country, and eventually utilised to perpetrate terrorist attacks like the 26/11 Mumbai blasts. Where globalisation has had the positive impact of bridging geographical distances in communication and mobilisation, allowing diasporas to come together with the Indian State, it has also originated the new threat of transnational criminality. Extremist groups within the country have fostered solidarity with diaspora groups abroad and have employed their respective advantages to disturb national peace and security. Even so, the role of the diaspora in India’s economic growth through the mediation and facilitation of trade and investment cannot be ignored. High-profile technocrats, entrepreneurs, and management consultants of Indian origin owning venture capital, information technology, and business process outsourcing companies have brought substantial foreign investment into the Indian economy and have contributed to research and development. Indeed, as West Bridge Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caulfied & Byers, and Norwest Venture Group have invested in intellectual property and innovative products – wireless and semiconductor design technology – they have contributed to India growing into a knowledge-based economy. Diaspora groups have also invested heavily in healthcare and education, establishing institutions at standards parallel to those of international excellence.

The Modi government seeks to present a different Indian State than the one that approached the diaspora hesitantly and warily after Independence. Recognising that harnessing the resources and loyalties of the diaspora would measurably better India’s material conditions and the international prestige of the country and the Prime Minister, diasporic engagement has intensified in the recent years. As the BJP shapes new political spheres of power, the government has pursued diasporic investment in India’s social and economic growth and the consolidation of their political commitment to the party. There are many aspects to Modi’s diaspora policy. The government has attempted to overturn existing discourses about ‘brain-drain’ to the Global North and replace it with assertions that India is a net supplier of benefits to the international community – providing a productive migrant workforce that contributes to the growth of the host country and the replenishment of the home country. The objective has been to sensitise host governments about the indispensability of the Indian diaspora as assets and to utilise this human resource to bolster bilateral relations between them and India. Modi’s visits to USA, Canada, Australia, and Fiji have aimed to “make the diaspora an integral part of India’s development journey”, but also to reap electoral benefits for the party. Indeed, as the wealthy Indian diaspora – many of whom identify with the BJP’s ideologies – provide large remittances to India, the “social media PM” has aggressively employed the digital media landscape to communicate with them and cultivate them as leverage, creating an international social media buzz around his election and re-election in 2014 and 2019 respectively. Proclaiming strong members of the diaspora as “India’s permanent ambassadors”, he has also viewed them as critical in flagship initiatives like ‘Make in India‘, ‘Swachch Bharat’, and Digital India – all essential public diplomacy tools. His emphasis on “change, development, and progress” seeks to rebrand India and communicate its competitive capability to the international community. The government’s efforts to galvanise the diaspora and engender comprehensive cultural, political, and economic empowerment through the motto of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas‘ seeks to engage with every section of the overseas population – as evidenced by Modi’s visit to the UAE in August 2015, where he demonstrated India’s commitment to the working-class diaspora there and declared that the government values them as much as affluent NRIs and OCIs. Ingratiating himself across the heterogeneous diaspora, the massive ‘Howdy Modi’ event at Houston in 2019 – during which his Twitter feed also included videos of meetings with representatives of the Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohras, the Kashmiri Pandits, and the Skikh communities – displayed that Modi’s diaspora engagement strategy had been carefully planned to convey the right message abroad. The government has also modelled its diaspora strategy on the successes of the Israel lobby in building a strong network of local supporters abroad. It has attempted to reorient its overseas efforts from only cultural events and professional networking to the formation of diasporic pressure groups – formed by executive officials and the news media – which would lobby policy formulation to advance India’s foreign policy interests, particularly in USA.

Indeed, Modi’s focus on transforming the diaspora into a strategic resource has augmented India’s international influence and has acted as a force multiplier rendering India’s “leading role” in the global community more coherent, organised, and visible at the grassroots. However, it remains to be seen whether diasporic engagement would produce the desired results of large investments and economic participation. Despite proclaiming otherwise, the government has continued to engage more with wealthy diaspora in the Global North and has failed to engage with the socially, ethnically, economically, and demographically heterogeneous diaspora. There have been demands from Indians in the Middle East, for instance, to integrate the treatment they receive and their difficult working conditions into a broad diaspora policy so that challenges related to sudden lay-offs and retrenchment may be better mitigated. It is difficult to definitively claim whether the intensification of diasporic engagement would benefit India’s long-term strategic interests, but scholars believe that trends indicate positive repercussions for India.


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