A Study of the Indian Diaspora: Presence in the Global South

Part - II

Presence in the Global SOuth - Part II

The Indian diaspora in the Global South mostly emigrated under the indenture system of the British colonial government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While some returned, most settled in the host countries, fearing economic deprivation and social ostracism at home, and believing in better employment prospects abroad. This diaspora became deeply embedded into the host populations and continues to occupy important social, political, and economic roles while maintaining deep linkages with India.

The purpose of this article is to analyse the presence of the Indian diaspora in the Global South. It is divided into two parts. In Part II, first, it will explore the history of the diaspora in Africa. Second, it will evaluate the effect of the diaspora on the multipolar Middle East.

Diaspora in Africa

According to official government statistics, such as the 2001 Report of the High-Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, the population of the Indian diaspora in Africa is steadily increasing. Inhabiting thirty-four countries across the continent, the latest estimates indicate the diasporic strength in the region to be comprised of more than 26 lakh NRIs and other persons of Indian origin, accounting for 12.48% of the total diasporic strength of India. The diaspora inhabits all cultural, geographic, and linguistic regions but varies regarding the proportion of the population they constitute. Whereas in Mauritius, they constitute 70% of the population, in the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, they comprise merely 3%. These variances have allowed the classification of the diaspora into four categories – substantial strength, dominant strength, marginal strength, and minimal strength. The first category consists of countries like South Africa and Reunion Island, where Indian communities have a population of more than 10 lakh. The diaspora population in South Africa is numbered more than 15 lakh individuals, constituting nearly 3% of the total population, and concentrated mainly around major industrial centres – with 75% inhabiting Durban in Kwazulu-Natal. The preponderance of the Indian population renders them politically influential in an area that is considerably prosperous and industrialised. In the Reunion Islands, they constitute around 30% of the total population. In the dominant strength category, countries where Indian communities form a majority in the total population, are included. According to the High-Level Committee on the Indian diaspora, Mauritius is the only country in the international community where Indians constitute an overwhelming 70% of the total population. The diaspora was among the first permanent settlers on the island, and their preponderance allows them to play important roles in the country’s political process, with the current parliament consisting of thirty-six members of Indian origin. The diaspora is not monolithic or homogenous and possesses diversities in religion, wealth, caste, place of origin, and language, though they continue to preserve cultural links to the home country through various associations and organisations. In the minimal strength category, thirty-two countries like Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde Islands, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Republic of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kingdom of Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland and Togo may be included, where the diaspora is numbered at less than 10000. The Indian population is dispersed across the country and are generally temporary residents working on projects and holding an Indian passport. Understandably, their political influence is inconsequential, and they do not obtain political offices in the host country. In the marginal strength category, countries like a Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe may be included, where the diaspora strength is between 1 lakh to 10000. Here too, because the population is small and dispersed, political influence possessed by the diaspora is rare, and they generally do not obtain political offices based on their ethnic identity. Even the Indian diaspora in these regions is economically affluent and are prominent journalists, academicians, and lawyers maintaining their cultural roots with the homeland and shaping public opinion about the same.

The arrival of the Indian diaspora to Africa may be traced to four waves of migration. The first comprised of traders, businessmen, and entrepreneurs settling on the East African coast and islands like Zanzibar and Seychelles, aiming to establish trading links and businesses – probably a result of the historical trade between South Asia and Africa through the Western Indian (Afro-Asian) Ocean. Though these trade links are more than two thousand years old, most traders settled in the region from the late nineteenth century. The second wave comprised Indian indentured labourers under the colonial system who were compelled to emigrate under forced labour regimes to sugar plantations in Mauritius in the nineteenth century and the mines in South Africa or to construct the Ugandan railway in East Africa in the early twentieth century. The third wave consisted of clerks, colonial administrators, teachers, doctors, and lawyers (like Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa in 1893), who settled between the 1920s and 1950s. The fourth wave of migrants comprised businessmen, traders, and professionals employed in IT companies, telecommunication companies, or financial services (banking and insurance) who arrived in the 1960s, especially in the neoliberal era after the late 1990s. These migratory and settlement patterns vary due to the causes and consequences of migration, the migrant population, the periods of migration, the returnee population, the manner of reception in the host countries, whether circular migration was transformed into a permanent settlement and chain migration, and whether there was an emergent local population of second, third, fourth (and so on) generations of Indian migrants, excluding intermarriages and local cultural alliances. Indeed, because the Indian population is so diverse religiously, linguistically, and ethnically, the diaspora too is diverse and includes Gujaratis (Hindus and Muslims) from northwest India, Telugus from the south, and Bhojpuri-speaking peoples from the northeast and central India. As these diverse groups tended to reproduce their own religions, family patterns, and cultures, practises of caste and language also adjusted to the new environment in the host countries. Intermarriages with Africans are rare, as the diaspora tend to inter-marry and maintain longstanding connections to their historical roots through visits to the homeland, mass media, and organisation in the host country. Even many are fully integrated into African society, are locally employed or employing individuals, and pay taxes.

The Indian diaspora has primarily contributed culturally and politically to African history since the 1950s. India’s independence in 1947 set the example for the emerging independence movements and the decolonisation process in Africa, especially as the old colonial order was severely discredited by the 1950s. African political leaders (aided by the diaspora) were inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-aligned movement desirous of Afro-Asian cooperation and by Gandhi’s opposition to apartheid. African leaders like Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta were associated with the Indian Independence League (founded in 1928 to organise Indians overseas) and the League of Coloured Peoples (founded in London in 1931 by Harold Moody to achieve racial equality and civil rights mobilisation). Nelson Mandela in South Africa owed his political legacy considerably to Gandhi’s political thought (though their methods differed), especially when the latter was active in the African National Congress. Mandela and Indian-origin Ahmed Kathrada were associates for nearly sixty-seven years, challenging apartheid, being imprisoned, and elected to political office in South Africa’s first free and fair elections in 1994, together. Culturally, the role played by the arrival of Indian cinema to Africa in the 1950s may not be eschewed. The local population greatly related to the themes and visuals in Bollywood – rural settings, similar agricultural persuasions, strong familial roles, the importance of social status and marriage, utilisation of domestic animals – especially because such cinema included important socioeconomic themes like the colonial independence struggle, economic inequality, oppression and exploitation, common to Africa. Indeed, Bollywood offered a model of cultural resistance and the amalgamation of tradition and modernity, resulting in Africans flocking to Hindi films, Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry being inspired by Bollywood, and eventually to diasporic individuals like Gurinder Chaddha (born in Kenya) directing Bollywood films like Bhaji on the Beach and Bride and Prejudice.

Diaspora in the Middle East

In recent years, the continued fracture in intra-Gulf relations between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and UAE has created an arena for external powers to play critical roles in the Middle East. Where USA and Russia have exhibited their military power and China its economic power, India’s increasing influence is founded on its populous expat community settled there. Understandably, during the Qatar crisis, the Foreign Minister asserted in his first televised response that assisting stranded Indian workers was the country’s priority. The diaspora in the Middle East constitutes both a soft power asset enhancing India’s international image and an added burden constricting its strategic tactics. From the perspective of poverty alleviation and economic development, the approximately 8 million-strong diaspora in the Middle East has always been essential to Indian diaspora engagement policies. The expat community residing in the Middle East is the main source of remittances, sending back $35.9 billion in foreign exchange in 2015-16. However, national interests have evolved beyond the economic considerations of importing oil and exporting labour. Its objective to achieve regional influence in the Indo-Pacific (while countering China’s ambitions in its neighbourhood) has compelled it to view the Middle East as key to its growing strategic and security interests. The Modi government has employed a variety of soft power and diplomatic instruments to achieve these interests, the most influential of which is the Indian diaspora – a peaceable, tolerant, and hardworking population, bolstering India’s image positively in the international arena. Scholars have found that governments in the Middle East have found it relatively easier to justify the expansion of relations with India in sensitive areas like defence cooperation to their population because the longstanding presence of the diaspora has assisted in anchoring bilateral ties and providing tangible benefits. Their presence also allows the cementing of contemporary reminders to the public in their host countries of the historical and cultural links between the two regions, especially because diasporic individuals possess a deep understanding of both cultures. Kerala (and some neighbouring Western states) – some of the largest providers of labour to the Gulf – were also the sites of early interactions between the historical populations of India and Arabia and had relatively peaceful Muslim-Hindu-Christian relations compared with other states in India. Therefore, the scale of migration to the Gulf not only provides a useful foundation for coexistence and multicultural understanding, but it also augments cultural exchange with Keralites back home, with many adopting culinary, linguistic, financial, and other practises common to the host region. This reinforces bilateral ties between India and the Middle East and fosters better understanding. These ties have also been spearheaded by principal representatives of the diaspora. For instance, E Ahamed – a Member of Parliament and of Kerala’s diaspora – was instrumental in bettered relations between Indian and Middle Eastern leaders and headed the crisis management group to successfully secure the release of three Indians abducted in Iraq in 2004. The diaspora bolsters India’s soft power independent of government policy, and because it is generally uninfluenced by policy shifts in the capital, it provides reassurance to host populations that India is a dependable partner. Scholars believe; however, that other dimensions of India’s soft power – non-interference and neutrality – may evolve as its interests and contingencies in the region increase. Where the Congress was understated in its relations with Israel, the Modi government has overtly and aggressively expanded this relationship in the key areas of defence and security. Nevertheless, the significance of the diaspora and their disproportionately high contribution to remittance flows may constrain Indian foreign policy formulation. The criticality of sustaining this remittance flows entails that India’s strategic manoeuvres in the region are limited by concerns that Gulf states may source labour from elsewhere if they find the country too demanding. However, these concerns are mitigated by the fact that the size and capability of the Indian diasporic labour force and contemporary logistics ensure that it would be difficult to replace them. The Gulf States also utilise the welfare needs of the diaspora when negotiating with India. Unskilled and low-skilled workers endure harmful working conditions and exploitation by employers, and the improvement of these conditions would require the cooperation of the host States. Indeed, these needs were central to Modi’s visit and speech to the expats in the UAE. Observers are uneasy that the future economic downturn and shift towards renewable energy would compel the Gulf States towards indigenous labour and thus assert that the government employ this soft power resource while it can.

The Indian government must utilise the competitive advantage it enjoys in the Global South – either due to its large labour force or historical ties aided by waves of migration. As the compositions and politics of the diaspora evolve, the government must realise that the soft power advantage provided by diasporic populations in the neighbourhood is essential to India’s ambitions for regional influence. While the diaspora in the Global North contributes significantly to India’s international image and fosters enduring economic and social ties, the diaspora in the Global South is relatively closer – whether economically, culturally, politically, or geographically. As international relations become increasingly multipolar and regional powers like China and South Korea amass global influence, it would be in India’s best interest to nurture deeper relations with the overseas community in the Caribbeans, Latin and Central America, Africa, and the Middle East.


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