Diaspora, Foreign Policy and National Security

Author: Captain JC Sharma, SM, IFS (Retd)

Period: July 2013 - September 2013

Diaspora, Foreign Policy and National Security

Captain JC Sharma, SM, IFS (Retd)*

Human beings have migrated in search of better climatic conditions, fertile land, for trade and commerce, to escape religious and political persecution and in the spirit of adventure since times immemorial. Process of Globalization has given a major fillip to this phenomenon. According to International Migration Organisation today there are about 214 million people working in the countries in which they were not born.1 The number would be even higher if we include people who have migrated in earlier generations. The migrant communities are commonly referred to as ‘Diaspora’ which is a Greek word meaning dispersal from a common source. The communities that have broad affinity with a common civilization, culture, ethnicity and or language are generally considered ‘Diaspora’. Some communities are identified as diaspora because of common religious identities. The best example would be Jewish diaspora. Globalisation and liberalisation of global economic system and the rapid advancement of transport and communication technologies have intensified their socio-economic, political and cultural ties with their origin countries. Diasporas have therefore attained importance not only at the international level, but also in the domestic political and economic affairs of home countries than ever before. They have emerged as an ‘inevitable link’ between their home and host lands along with major political and economic implications for both sides.

                Diasporas have also emerged as a major source of investments, knowledge transfers and capacity building. The Chinese Diaspora has been a propelling force for its emergence as an economic and industrial power. Overseas Chinese account for approximately sixty five per cent of total foreign investment in China. They have also been a major source of transfer of technology, modern management practices and facilitators of international trade. East European countries relied heavily on their Diasporas for transformation of their economic systems after the Cold War. African Union has declared diaspora as the sixth region of Africa. They are playing a useful role in capacity building.

                Remittances have emerged as an important factor in foreign exchange management of a number of countries. India is the largest recipient of remittances in the world with US $ 69 billion in the year 2012.2 Remittances constitute twenty two per cent of GDP of Kerala. They constitute a significant part of foreign exchange reserves of Mexico, Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and many other countries.

                Diaspora has been an important part of Indian polity since colonial times. Colonial government heavily relied on Indian indentured labour for sustaining its plantation colonies in the wake of abolition of slavery. Indenture system and the treatment of migrant labour became a major point of discussion in the Congress Party sessions since its early years. Colonial government took several policy measures to manage public opinion in India. Protectorate General of Emigrants was established and the committee was constituted to examine the issues of Indian indentured workers. Congress Party sent delegations to report on the conditions and treatment of Indian migrant labourers. Mahatma Gandhi with his first-hand experience in South Africa strongly opposed indenture system and it was finally abolished in 1916. Komagata Maru incident in Canada and firing on the returnees at Calcutta became land mark events. Overseas Indians played a significant role in the Independence movement. Moderates like Dadabhai Naoroji who became the first Asian member of the House of Commons in 1892 pleaded for greater devolution of power. The Ghadar movement initiated in 1913 in California emerged as a prominent centre for revolutionary Indian nationalism outside India.

                Shyamji Krishna Varma founded India House and The Indian Sociologist in 1905 which rapidly developed as an organised meeting point for radical nationalists among Indian students in Britain. India League mounted a major lobbying effort in the United Kingdom. Netaji Subhash Bose received enthusiastic support from Indians in South East Asia. Dilip Singh Saundh became the first Asian to be a member of the US Congress. Overseas Indians also raised funds during the time of war with China in 1962.

                25 million strong overseas Indians spread in every continent constitute second largest diaspora in the world. There are more than half a million Indians in 11 countries and more than 100000 in 22 countries.3 Large scale migration from India was a byproduct of colonialism. Labour was recruited from India to sustain plantation economies of colonial powers. Beginning with 1834, indentured labour was sent to Mauritius followed by Caribbean, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Fiji. Other colonial powers France, Netherlands and Portugal followed suit. Indian labour was recruited to build East African Railways. They were followed by professionals and traders who went as free passage migrants and Mahatma Gandhi was one of them. Colonial connection also led to some migration to the UK and Canada. Some migrants to Canada moved to the USA. Some Indians also went to the UK and the US for higher education. Post-independence some Indians migrated to the UK to meet labour shortage. This was followed by migration of professionals to the UK and North America. Many students who went for higher education settled down in the US and Canada in the wake of change of immigration laws in 1965 and 1966.

                There was also secondary and tertiary migration to developed countries of Indians from Africa and Caribbean because of growing insecurity. Many IT professionals also migrated during dot com bubble and Y2K problem. Achievements and entrepreneurship of Indian professionals and high education standards have completely changed the profile of Indians in developed world. They are seen now as a major asset by the host countries. In the wake of oil crisis of 1973 and rise in oil prices, countries in the Gulf required large human resource to build infrastructure. This resulted in large migration of Indians to Gulf and soon Indians numbering around five million became the largest foreign community in Gulf.

                As a result of growing profile and prosperity of Indians, particularly in developed world, Indian diaspora have acquired a higher profile and started playing a role in the politics of the host countries. They have also started getting important assignments and have been elected to important public offices. The end of Cold War and policy of economic liberalisation pursued since 1991 have led to emergence of India as an important player in international arena. Growing stature of both India and its diaspora has led to emergence of overseas Indians as an important factor in India’s foreign policy, national security and economic development. They are seen as an important resource in India’s quest to be a knowledge power.

                Observing the role played by Chinese diaspora in transformation of China and Jewish diaspora in influencing the US policy towards west Asia a debate on the role of diaspora has started in India. Negative actions of certain sections of diaspora have also led to a debate whether diaspora is a strategic asset or a liability or a bit of both? It is not that India has not faced foreign policy challenges because of overseas Indians earlier. Congress Party kept constant pressure on colonial government. In spite of a large overseas population Nehru wound up the department of overseas Indians in 1947, though on March 18, 1946 while addressing a predominantly Indian gathering in Singapore, Jawaharlal Nehru said: “India cannot forget her sons and daughters overseas. Although India cannot defend her children overseas today, the time is soon coming when her arm will be long enough to protect them.4 He gave primacy to India’s larger foreign policy interests and the policy of anti colonialism, anti apartheid and Non Alignment. Answering a question from Seth Govind Das in Lok Sabha in 1955 he stated ‘Our interest in them becomes cultural and humanitarian and not politics.’5 He also faced two major challenges when large number of Indians left Burma in the wake of policy of Burmanisation and Nationalisation.

                A question of Indians in Sri Lanka was another thorny issue India had to grapple with. PM Lal Bahadur Shastri entered into Shastri Srimavo Pact on the question of Indians in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi had to deal with the issue of exodus of Indians from East Africa and their brutal treatment by Idi Amin. This was a major item on agenda for discussions with Margaret Thatcher as most of them held British passports. Foreign exchange shortages made her policy towards overseas Indians remittance centric. Indians in the USA also opposed declaration of emergency in 1975. This led to closer engagement between Indian missions and the community. Operation Blue Star led to estrangement of large sections of Sikhs overseas particularly in the UK, Canada and the USA. Many Gurudwaras became major source of financial and political support of separatists. This created irritants in our relationship with several countries. Kanishka crash was the single biggest incident of aviation terrorism killing 329 people. Another bomb exploded in baggage handling area of Narita airport. Bombs to bring down two Air India planes were placed by members of the Indian community in Vancouver.

                Earlier Kashmiri separatists had killed Ravindra Mhatre in UK in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi felt that diaspora could play a major role in modernisation of India. He felt diaspora could play a useful role in his vision of India of 21st century and brought technocrats like Sam Pitroda to India who changed the entire telecom scenario in the country. Rajiv Gandhi also took proactive stand on the coup in Fiji in 1987 and put in considerable diplomatic effort in getting Fiji expelled from the Commonwealth.

                The end of Cold War and dissolution of Soviet Union, liberation of Indian economy and rising profile of diaspora created the right environment for a mutually beneficial engagement. The investment by overseas Indians in the India Development Bonds helped in overcoming the foreign exchange crisis in early nineties. National Democratic Alliance led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched a major initiative for engaging the diaspora. The Government introduced Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card in March 1999 and established a NRI/PIO division in the Ministry of External Affairs in March 2000. A high level Committee under the Chairmanship of Dr LM Singhvi, MP was appointed in September, 2000. The Committee was to provide a blue print for India’s engagement with overseas Indians. All the major recommendations of the Committee were accepted. 9th January was declared Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (PBD) and Pravasi Samman Awards were instituted. The first Pravasi Divas celebrations were held in New Delhi from 9-11 January 2003. PM Vajpayee announced the acceptance of the demand for dual citizenship. He also announced the insurance scheme for Indian workers.6

                UPA Government announced establishment of Ministry for Overseas Indians Affairs (MOIA) in May, 2004. They have introduced several measures to leverage the resources of diaspora. MOIA has paid special attention to the welfare of Indian workers abroad particularly in Gulf. As a result of intensified engagement since the nineties, diaspora has become an important factor in our foreign policy. Indo-Americans have emerged as a major strategic asset in our relations with the USA. Thanks to their efforts, India caucus has emerged as the largest caucus on Capitol Hill. They actively supported India’s cause in the aftermath of new nuclear test in 1998, Kargil conflict and the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Corporation agreement. They occupy influential positions in every walk of life and are able to leverage the Democratic process in pursuit of India’s national interest. The profile of Indo-Canadians has also been rising and they are an important factor in our relationship with Canada. Every senior leader from Canada makes it a point to visit Golden Temple during his visit to India.

                Indian Community in the UK has also emerged as one of the most influential overseas community. They have become active participant in public life at all levels. The representation in the Parliament has been steadily increasing. Like the US they are also able to leverage the Democratic process. They are also a force to reckon within the economic field. Indian Community has also made a mark in cultural field. Indian cuisine and Punjabi fusion music have become extremely popular. There are large Indian communities in Holland, Italy, Portugal and overseas territories of France. These communities can play a useful role in promoting our relations.

                Presence of large Indian communities has been an important part of our relationship with East and South Africa. They play an important role in our bilateral trade. Threat to their safety and security and overt discriminations is bound to generate reactions in India. It would have major implications for our bilateral relations. Similarly, the safety and security of large Indian communities in Malaysia and Fiji will have a bearing on our relations. Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) agitation in Malaysia had its fallout in India. M Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu issued a sharp statement drawing an equally sharp rejoinder from a Malaysian Minister. Indian High Commission in Fiji had to be closed down in the aftermath of the coup in 1987. Killing of Indian students in Australia led to a major uproar in India. Same was the case with the issue of custody of a child in Norway.

                Five million strong Indian community in Gulf is a vital factor in our relationship with GCC countries. The biggest air lift was organised for evacuation of Indians during the first Gulf War. Remittances from Indians in Gulf play a significant part in our foreign exchange management. Largest number of consular issues are dealt with by our missions in Gulf. Recent introduction of Nitakat law in Saudi Arabia had major impact on the Indian diaspora. Several demarches at Ministerial level had to be made to provide some relief to affected workers.

                No foreign policy can be effective without economic strength. Knowledge power and technological capabilities are a major determinant of standing of a nation. Diasporas are invaluable assets in this regard. India’s rise as an IT power owes a lot to the success of Indians in Silicon Valley. Diasporas are a major asset in India’s quest to be a knowledge power.

                Overseas communities have been used as an intelligence asset by all major intelligence agencies. CIA has used them in many parts of the world. Both Richard Headley and Tahavvur Rana are overseas Pakistanis whom they effectively used for reconnaissance for Mumbai 26/11 operations. Ghulam Nabi Fai a member of Kashmiri diaspora and an active ISI operative has been convicted in the USA. Overseas Bangladeshis were a major asset to India in1971.  

                India has already experienced that overseas communities can also be major strategic liability. Khalistan movement could not have survived so long without strong support of Sikh diaspora. LTTE relied heavily on Tamil diaspora for financial, political and logical support. Overseas Kashmiris have lent considerable help to the separatists. Most of the demonstrations against Indian leaders have been organised by overseas Indian communities. Intelligence agencies inimical to India, particularly ISI, have repeatedly exploited overseas Indians. There was a strong nexus between Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists and ISI. No effort has been spared by ISI in recruiting Indians in Gulf through indoctrination and inducement. They are recruited in Gulf to become sleeper cells. Entire handling is done by operatives in Gulf. Indoctrinated returnees have spread fundamentalist ideologies which have led to polarisation and disturbed communal harmony. Overseas communities are a major source of money laundering through hawala route.

                Diaspora has also become active participant in our electoral process. They are an important source of funding and also come to India to participate in election campaigns. Advertisements were taken out in NRI media during last assembly elections in Punjab. This development has major implications for our democratic process.

                To sum up, because of globalisation, revolutionary changes in the field of transportation and communication technology, overseas communities have become an important factor in international relations. They are major players in the field of soft power diplomacy, knowledge transfer, modernisation and economic development. A well-disposed diaspora can be a major strategic asset and community with grievances can be a major liability and exploited by unfriendly countries. It is, therefore, essential to have an active diaspora policy for a mutually beneficial engagement. A thorough study of the implication of overseas communities, its implications for our foreign policy and national security is extremely important.


1.            http://www.iom.int/cms/en/sites/iom/home/about-migration/facts—figures-1.html

2.            http://www.indianexpress.com/news/india-tops-global-remittances-list-received—69 -bn-in-2012-world-bank/1105250/

3.            Report of The High Level Committee part 1 page x1vii as on December 2001.

4.            Dr V Suryanarayan, The Hindu, January 09, 2008 online edition.

5.            Deccan Herald online edition January 01, 2008. A proactive policy towards the Diaspora Rup Nanarayan Das.

6.            In Inaugural Address of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the first Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, 9-11 Jan, 2003 – website www.indiandiaspora.nic.in


*Captain JC Sharma, SM, IFS (Retd) was commissioned into The Regiment of Artillery on 23 Apr 1967. He participated in the Indo-Pak War of 1971 in the Eastern Theatre and was decorated with Sena Medal for gallantry. On release from the Army on 13 Jul 1972, he joined Indian Foreign Service in 1972 and retired as Secretary in Ministry of External Affairs on 31 Jul 2004. He is also a former Member Secretary of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLIII, No. 593, July-September 2013.


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