India- Africa Strategic Dialogue - Session VI: Bilateral Issues - Diaspora
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  • The session was chaired by Mr. J.C. Sharma, Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India; and the Speakers were Prof. Philip O Nyinguro, University Of Nairobi, Kenya and Prof. Sanjukta Bhattacharya, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.

    The Chair opened the session by stating that diaspora as a discipline is a comparatively new phenomenon. Primarily it was looked at by the social anthropologists and was of not much interest for the foreign policy makers in different parts of the world. However, with the coming of globalisation, the term has gained much consideration and is influencing the bilateral relations and notions of national security. Contemporary examples could be the LTTE and the Operation Blue Star. It has also impacted on the India-Australia relations in recent years. The presence of Indian diasporas in Africa can have both negative and positive impact.

    While the positives can be witnessed in the development of African continent and its negative impact can be seen in countries like Tanzania and Kenya. The importance of the diaspora gained momentum as the regime in Uganda got its diaspora back to their homeland. It was said to be a benchmark decision.

    The diaspora develop contacts and linkages in foreign lands and this gives leverage to capacity building through education, health, business and other expertise. Hence, diasporas can contribute majorly in strengthening bilateral ties. During the NDA regime in India, change in policies with regard to India’s diaspora brought in historical changes and the way they were looked upon.

    Philip O. Nyinguro stated that the relations between India and Africa have been close since the time of Mahatma Gandhi, and has since been consistent. Indian diaspora has been an integral part of Kenya; it is divided into several communities like the Punjabi, Gujarati and others. However, the role of diaspora cannot be overemphasised as it depends on the depth of the linkages they have to their country of origin. The question of Indian diaspora can thus be answered only if the depth of their linkages in their country of origin is known. So far, the Indian diaspora has not gained much of attention from their homeland government; hence, Indian leaders must pay attention to it. The diaspora can also help in times of frosty relations between the two nations.

    But the idea of ‘sons of soil’ soon began to float among the African communities due to the failure of the indigenous people and this created problems for the Indian diaspora which is regarded as hardworking and competent. The example of US policy in the Pacific region is based on the diaspora, which could be a lesson for India as well. The advantage can be retained only if they are well-organised. Indian Government is sitting on a ‘Goldmine’ in terms of its foreign relations. In order to gain its rightful place in the world, India should focus on its diaspora across the continent not only in economic but also in terms of culture. The Indian diaspora is fabricated in different parts of Africa, like Mauritius (60.35 per cent), Reunion (31 per cent), Tanzania, and Uganda. However, not many Indians are residing in the north and west of Africa, which is not a good sign.

    Nyinguro was of the view that South Africa can be very important from the point of view of India’s interests in Africa. It can work as a diplomatic and economic guarantor for India in Africa. He emphasised on the idea of India’s greater involvement in Africa through various means to strengthen its relations as well as to have claims over its diaspora in foreign lands. India needs theoretical framework to study its diaspora and implement it in its international relations. It needs to identify its areas of cooperation to make it a mechanism to reach out to Africa. It needs to encourage people-to-people contact, especially in east Africa. The Indian embassies thus need to revive its relations and interactions with the Indian diaspora in Africa.

    Sanjukta Bhattacharya in her presentation discussed the Indian attitude towards its diaspora. Her presentation was critical of the government’s approach and general ignorance about the Indians living outside the country. Also, she brought in the numerical facts about the Indian diaspora in Africa in comparison with those in other parts of the world. The total number of Indians in Africa sums up to a total of 2.5 million, which is less than in West Asia, US etc. In Africa, the Indians are highly concentrated only in three countries- Mauritius, South Africa, and Reunion. These people of Indian origin were taken to Africa as poor labourers during the British colonial rule, Through hard work and enterprise they soon took charge of retail and other sectors of local economies. The colonial strategy of creating a wedge between the diaspora and the natives by giving constant attention to diaspora to some extent was responsible for anti-diaspora sentiments in Africa. Subsequently post independence certain countries within Africa adopted discriminatory policies against Indian diaspora.

    However, the Indian government’s policy towards the diaspora formulated by former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not encourage return of people of Indian origin. Therefore, Indians in African countries, such as, Uganda, Kenya had to move to other nations like the US, UK and Europe in the face of increased discrimination. However, Indian attitude towards the diaspora has changed in recent years due to its rising power and global status. Recognising the contribution and potential benefits from the Indian diaspora, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs was created in 2003 by the NDA Government. The ministry soon began granting dual citizenship to the Indian diaspora. The honouring of the Indian diaspora (Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award) for their achievements with regard to their contribution in improving the bilateral relations with India was also initiated. Bhattacharya concluded by stating that the Indian diaspora’s response to the recent government initiatives has been mixed.

    Report prepared by Soumya Tiwari, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi