“Role of Indian Diaspora in Nation Building”
August 15, 2020
On the occasion of India’s Independence Day, Yuva Germany, in association with IPF, organised a webinar on “Role of Indian Diaspora in Nation Building”. Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo, Director, India Policy Foundation, was the main speaker. Shiv Prakash of Yuva’s Germany Chapter moderated the webinar. Indian students, researchers and young entrepreneursbased in Germany participated in the webinar.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo
“There are huge expectations from the youthto learn and to contribute positively for national development. But the challenges before us are of corruption and nepotism. Innumerable visitors, including the companion historians of attacking armies, praised generations of Indians for their honesty, integrity, truth and knowledge. There were clearly defined rules and limits for profit making. Anyone attempting to extract high profits was socially ostracised. But corruption started taking shape in India during British colonial rule particularly during the First World War and the Second World War when British officers used the Indian traders to make as much profit as possible. British used the Indian traders as front and they becamethe hidden partners in the trading companies to extract maximum profit during war time. That is how the whole system got corrupted and it multiplied after independence. The people who were very close to the British establishment shifted their allegiance overnight to the new rulers and they started exploiting the country. Then corruption became widespread due to nepotism by politicians and bureaucrats.
So, this nepotism, corruption and lack of opportunities for the talented people, absence of reward for the competent and hardworking people created circumstances in which people started moving out of India. People were not very happy leaving India for higher education and employment but there were not many opportunities within the country. Moreover, certain regulations which were there for social equity also restricted opportunities for some and those who could managestarted moving out of India. We saw that larger number of people from few states started moving out. That is the post-independence emigration of educated Indians as well as people who were going out for employment.
Another part of diaspora has long history. We all know that India is a very old civilization and has been in touch with all parts of the world through trade and spiritual linkages. And Indians not only travelled all over the world but many Indians settled in different parts of the world. They started adopting those cultures and traces of this can be found in places like North America, South America, Asia and even in Africa. But the forced migration of Indians was started by theviolent people who attacked India and ruled over India. Initially they started taking Indians as slaves. Even women and children were taken as slaves and sold in the markets of Arabian countries. Later on, during the British colonial period, we saw how Europeans took Indians to work on projects in different parts of the world from Pacific to Africa to East Asia.
Our cultural relations and the religious connections with early migrant Indians were very old. But the economic relations with Indians settling out of India started late.Since they were sent to different locations and after completion of the projects, some of the Indians felt it appropriate to settle down in Africa, the North America, the Caribbean nations, the Pacific islands etc. They started marrying local people, adopting local culture and that is how a large part of Indian diaspora developed. They have cultural connect with India but they are not having any residential connection with India as such.
Now Diaspora played a very important role in India’s freedom struggle.
Indians not only went abroad for higher studies; they were many who were already settled there. For example, there were a lot of people from India working in North America, in different European countries, in East Asian countries etc. These people encouraged the revolutionaries to mobilise people, money, resources and support from the host countries to fight against colonialism. We all know about Shyamji Krishna Varma, LalaHarDayal, Madam Cama, Rash Behari Bose, VinayakDamodarSavarkar etc. The list is very long. These great leaders motivated the Indian diaspora and we know how people dedicated everything. They sold their properties, women donated whatever jewelleries they had so that revolutionaries could fight, buy arms, erect armies to fight against the British and make India a free nation. This is something unique. We don’t find many instances of such dedication, such devotion for their motherland despite living outside India for decades. Many people sacrificed everything for freedom to support leaders like Subash Chandra Bose who formed an army to fight the British.
The struggle for freedom was carried forward due to the continuous efforts of many revolutionaries who kept on mobilising support through seminars, conferences, journals, newsletters, meetings, travels all over the country and abroad. They kept on motivating the Indian diaspora to take part in the freedom struggle. So, one part was playing a role in Indian freedom struggle and the second part was contributing to Indian economy by working abroad and sending savings home.
Indian diaspora has been sending money back to India for centuries. And it has increased manifoldin recent decades, except this year which has been hard on everyone. But Indian diaspora has been among the top groups sending money back to their motherland and which has been very critical for the development of the people living within the country, of their family members, villagers and the industries. Other than appreciating the economiccontribution androle in the freedom struggle, various governments post-independence did not realise the importance of connecting with Indian diaspora in an encouraging manner. The pro-active approach wasn’t there. We saw several instances not only in terms of crisis situations where the successive governments of India couldn’t or didn’t take much proactive role to help Indians stranded in different countries or troubled by political upheavals in their host countries. Whether it was Burma (Myanmar) or Uganda,the government of India left the Indians based there on their own. And we know how people were forced to find shelter in European countries and other countries. But the government of India did not come out with open arms to support them.
After formation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, a change in the approach came. The government of India officially started welcoming and connecting with the Indian diaspora and we know how PravasiDiwas became a regular feature. Indian diaspora was happy to see this welcome change in the government of India’s approach and they started taking interest not only in terms of sending money back, and helping the economy,but they also became very active participants in spreading Indian culture abroad. The diaspora also helped government of India in its various diplomatic initiatives.
Again, the next ten years of UPA government, there was not much for the Indian diaspora. But after the formation of the Modi government in 2014, the situation completely changed. Prime Minister Modi not only engaged with the diaspora in different countries, he highlighted their contributions to their host countries to make them realise how Indian diaspora was very critical for the development of the host countries. In fact, he did a valuable PR for Indian diaspora in those countries by mobilising them in large events and showing their might, their unity and their strength and dedication not only for the Indian community or for India but also for their host countries. He also invited leaders like we have seen in the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in the USA where President Trump also took part on Modi’s invitation. These incidents are not only valuable in terms of diplomatic outreach of government of India but these are very important in giving substantial push to the influence and to the contribution of Indian diaspora in different countries.
This approach has played a very critical role and now the Indian diaspora is no more passive when it comes to political issues, religious rights, diplomatic initiatives, economic negotiations etc. And there are trade bodies, industry bodies, professional bodies not only in the IT sector in which Indians have done superbly well but in other sectors also. This major contribution of Indian diaspora has enhanced the image of India as a nation and also of Indian community in general.
Now the question is what the Indian community can do for the nation? What is it that we can define as brand India? Is it about the Indian film industry? Is it about Indian cuisine, music or garments? What is it that we can call as brand India? Media would highlight our successful people in different sectors like IT, banking and finance. Indians would also get very excited when someone having Indian heritage, fully or partially, gets into politics, particularly in western countries. But what is it that makes brand India a distinct entity? This is something very important. Because we should realise that our unique identity or our core is not movies, food or our economic advancement. Our unique identity or our core is in our spirituality. What makes India distinct is our spiritual heritage and our knowledge traditions. We can imitate the western countries, their lifestyles, their education system and economic policies. We can also erect huge malls and big industrial complexes, IT parks, 16 lane highways,and everything else that we see in the developed countries can be replicated in India. Indians can also work in global companies and achieve an immense amount of success which we get to see. Indians are doing very well and they are also heading some of the biggest companies in the world. But still it is only a name or a connection with India. What is it that makes India important for the world?
Now I come to the global situation. As we see today, the world is in a crisis mode. Crisis not only in terms of political conflicts, not only in terms of economic confusion or a slowdown.Crisis is not only in terms of environmental degradation, cultural demoralisation or breaking up of family, community and society. Humanity is at crossroads. Everybody expects some solution from science and technology. And science and technology has contributed a lot to make the lives of humans better particularly in the last 50-60 years. It has contributed to the areas of medical science, transportation, by making life easier through information technology and making knowledge accessible to everyone. This is a huge contribution. But there are challenges which are bigger and beyond the reach of science and technology today.
The one major part that we see today is concerned about the environmental degradation. Economic development and thinking of the world is predominantly based on exploiting the nature to make human life comfortable. And we have seen how natural resources have been exploited or even damaged for some temporary pleasure of humanity, particularly for people who have huge amount of money to spend. We are now worried about waste, whether it is plastic waste, IT hardware waste or medical waste. People are also worried about new bacteria and viruses which have emerged and are creating problems. In this particular year, we have seen how entire world has been forced to change the lifestyle, change the economic activities and even change personal lives due to deadly threat from a virus. So, somewhere science despite huge advancements is finding itself in a little bit of helpless situation.
Science and technology is not helping to strengthen families. It is not helping to keep people in good mental health. Mental health crisis used to be a western phenomenon. I have been a student of psychology and we used to study that the percentage of suicide among the educated Americans was highest amongst American psychologists. It means the people who were supposed to help other people in overcoming suicidal feelings were committing suicide more than the normal individuals or the people who didn’t have any background in psychology. So, it means somewhere the bookish knowledge or the degrees didn’t help the people. Now this problem has come to the developing part of the world. Even to a country like Indiawhich is culturally very strong. Since, we put a lot of value to physical advancement, accumulation of goods and we disregarded the value of relations and value of humansdue to our desire to live like the Westerners. There is a lot of internal conflict too. So, now the situation is very serious. There is a crisis which we see outside in terms of pollution, waste, contamination, chemicalisation of food, water, environment etc. And when we are alone, we are suffering from contamination of ideas, influence of continuous conflict between our desires and availability of opportunities to fulfil those desires. Also, to compete with others in terms of the latest gadgets, cars, fancy holidays in glamorous locationsabroad.
So, those desires are continuously rising but the opportunities are limited. And when you achieve one ambition, there are plenty others. And when you see others, you feel that you need to compete with them because that is what has been taught to you by your education and mass media. So, outside there is a problem in terms of living a healthy life. Within, you have problems in terms of challenges to your mental health and peace. And then there are social conflicts, political conflicts and economic conflicts. The humanity is in a very difficult situation.
I am focusing on the core point here. Why are Indian knowledge systems and Indian spiritual system critical for humanity? In this, the role of Indian diaspora is very important because only we can help humanity, only we have the knowledge system, wisdom and experience. It is not something which is very expensive. Very recently, Prime Minister Moditook initiative and now we see International Yoga Day being celebrated all over the world. But that is limited to what we call the physical exercise part which keeps you fit and adds to your mental well-being for a certain amount of time. But the challenges are bigger. The world still does not know whether the socialist economic model is correct or the capitalist economic model is correct. So again, our knowledge systems, our knowledge traditions provide valuable insights into what could be a more humanitarian model which can take care of all the beings, not just humans. Those ideas have to be discussed, debated and shared with everyone.
Unfortunately, we Indians do not value them. There are several examples of people who were born in a different country and brought up in a different culture, but they studied Indian traditions and learnt Sanskrit. They learnt from Indian society, they travelled all over India and they translated Indian knowledge into their own languages like English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese etc. They shared that knowledge with their people in their own understanding. Problem is,unless the core is there, it is not easy to understand or inculcate the ideas which our ancestors learnt and passed on to their next generations.
The role of Indian spiritual knowledge and the contribution of Indian diaspora for the betterment of humanity is something we need to realise and something we need to act upon. I see it in the form of a building where we are worried about what should be the interiors without having any idea about what should be the foundation. We don’t know what will be the design of the building but we are more worried about what will be the colour of the sofa sets. What I mean to say is, we are desperately trying to imitate the West in terms of buildings, malls and branded goods. But we are not realising ultimately what humanity needs and what we also need. My point here is to the Indian diaspora and to the young people to focus on realising the core. Now it sounds very easy to talk about Indian spirituality when you are student and you have no idea about how the future will be. So, we need to ask what is the way forward.I would say before you start preaching to the world, it is very important to focus on individual development. This can be done by becoming self-confident, by becoming competent enough to share your wisdom and impart your ideas to others with conviction. Unless you have the knowledge and skills to compete in this world, unless you have the confidence to take on wise and learned people in different countries, you will not be able to confidently articulate your ideas whether it is about your culture, your food, your dress or your spirituality.
The starting point is always about learning well. And learning not only the parts which are available in books and classrooms but learning the parts useful for the application of that knowledge. You may be studying medicine, engineering, information technology, architecture or even social sciences – gain the knowledge and compete with people who are studying with you, do better than them but at the same time, always keep this thing in mind that you have a role to play. The role is that of a spiritual diplomat of Indian spiritual heritage. That role has to be there at the back of your mind. If we acquire money, if we become wealthy, gain in terms of technology and develop like Singapore or Germany and if we start behaving like them where families start breaking down, where we don’t trust each other – ultimately how will the idea of India will survive? Because when we talk about the idea of India, there is a section of India which believes that India took birth in 1947. And for them, the idea of India is whatever was discussed in the Constituent Assembly debates and then incorporated into our Constitution and some ideas which were incorporated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the Constitution during the Emergency. For them, the idea of India is about certain terms which they keep on repeatingagain and again. The idea of India is not a 1947 product, the idea of India is thousands of years of what we call the Bharatiya Gyan Parampara.
So, first there is a need to understand what is the idea of India, and then to understand what is brand India. It can then be taken forward while progressing in your individual fields which will make your life comfortable and make you confident to talk to other people. Unless youare not confident in terms of your knowledge, your career, your lifestyle and your thinking, you will never be able to talk to other people and never be able to confidently articulate your views.
In the last hundred years, there is a drastic change in the perception about India. There is a lot of negativity that is being generated at the same time. It is a war going on about positivity aboutIndia and deliberate attempts to paint India in a negative light. But since the speech of Swami Vivekananda in Chicago, there is a change in thinking about India and Indians in the world at large. At the same time, as our spiritual confidence is rising, we also see confidence in terms of economy, confidence in terms of political independence and so on. There is a very good document “Uttarpara speech” by Sri Aurobindowhose birthday falls on 15 August. When Sri Aurobindo was hardly six years of age, his father sent him to England. His father was a doctor and he didn’t want his children to be under any influence of Indianness. He wanted his sons to be like Europeans. In fact, he sent both his sons – Aurobindo and his brother to England at a very young age. They lived in England and under the care of an Irish lady, they learnt all about Europe, European philosophy, culture, food habits and everything. And that same Aurobindo, after clearing civil services exam, when he came back to India and started working for Maharaja of Baroda, came in contact with some yogis and he learnt something about yoga. But he didn’thavemuch faith. In fact, later on, he also mentioned that he was an atheist and never believed in the existence of God. But seeing the condition of Indians, he was pained and he became a revolutionary.
During the course of revolutionary activities, he got arrested and was put behind bars. When he was in Alipore jail, in a solitary cell, he meditated and he was made to experience and realise the truth about Sanatan Dharma and Indian spiritualism. And when he came out, he gave a speech on 30 May 1909. That speech is known as Uttarpara Speech. I would request all of you to read it once and then read it again and try to understand what is said in the speech. There are some lessons,particularly where Sri Aurobindo repeats what he was told in that solitary cell during meditation. He says that BhagwanShriKrishna appeared before him and gave him an instruction. The instruction was that, “I am raising this nation not for itself, I am going to give freedom to India not for itself but for the humanity. India is rising for the humanity.”
So, that is the core. We have a responsibility to serve the humanity. In fact, I would use the terms that it an Indian’s “burden” to spiritualise the world and to make the life of humans permanently better which the western economic model or the western scientific technologies are not able to do. Therein lies our challenge and the here the role of the Indian diaspora comes into picture. Rest all we have been doing. We have been trying our best to do well in economy, technology, medicine, literature, sports and all other fields. It is important to understand that whatever we do in our individual life, the core has to be there which is our responsibility towards humanity. And the core is always going to be through spiritual means and spiritual knowledge.
Thank you very much!
Q: Indian diaspora is facing hate crimes in many countries especially after protectionist policies adopted by various governments. How should we deal with that?
Dr Ratnoo: The important part here is the networking within the diaspora and working towards brand building. There are misconceptions due to which Sikhs in different countries have faced hostilities. They were termed as Arabs and people attacked them. I think world is quite ignorant about India, Indian culture and Indian traditions. At the same time, there are people who are very narrow in their vision. Basically, what we are seeing today is the conflict between not only political ideologies but the conflict between different religious ideologies. In between this, unfortunately we become the victim, without any role whatsoever.
The first part is sensitizing the people, sensitizing the governments and sensitizing the media. I feel social media is a free tool and easy medium which should be properly utilised to spread awareness about Indians among people who have a very negative perception about Indians. It is really funny that Indians having thousands of years of civilization and having great advancements in science and technology and other fields were being termed “savages” by the Europeans who didn’t have much of history. And that perception has remained in certain sections. At the same time, there are evil intentions behind religious or political objectives. Those individuals always instigate one another and try to subjugate and terrorise Indians. But we need not get fearful or get too concerned. Seeing what we have experienced for centuries, this is just a passing phase. The way we have been growing in the last few decades and the way the world is taking notice of India, Indian culture and Indian traditions and Indian spiritual heritage, it is only a matter of time that the world will be very respectful of India and Indians in particular.
Q: Do we have any policies to call back NRIs and accommodate them in the existing institutional and social set ups? So far, the existing schemes have not yielded positive results.
Dr Ratnoo: The system of Indian governance, particularly bureaucracy,is not very flexible. There have been some attempts by Modi government for lateral entry. There were some initiatives earlier also regarding the establishment of some academic institutions and inviting the best of talents from different parts of the world. But those were more with some political agenda than with the larger objective of serving India or the humanity.
Definitely, there is a need and there are attempts. The government also looks forward to more engagement with people who have gone abroad for studies, have settled there, made tremendous progress in their fields,and to use their competence, their skill and knowledge for improving life of Indians.But the policy is one part and the implementation is another part. Definitely, we see hindrances. But the situation is definitely getting better and Indian diaspora is in a much more comfort zone in terms of access to the policymakers and access to the political leaders which is a very good development. Earlier, they used to run around to get in touch with somebody who was important. These days there are organisations in different countries which have access to policymakers, not only to the people posted in different countries but also to the people who are based in Delhi and other important centres.
(Report prepared by Lekshmi Parameswaran. Inputs by Vikrant Tyagi)