BENGALURU: Some of them were descendants of indentured laborers taken away from India by the British nearly two centuries ago. Some were Indians who left the country in the latter half of the 20th century in search of greener pastures abroad or their children. All of them had one thing in common: an intense pride in their Indian heritage.
That pride was very much on display at the 14th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas – the 14th Non-Resident Indians Day – held in this capital city of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, over a week ago. The warmth and hospitality extended to the participants of the event, by the highest officials in the Indian government and in the government of Karnataka State is a testimony to the clout and respect they have been enjoying lately.
Until not long ago, Pravasi Indians (Indians living abroad) used to be ridiculed by those living in India for having left “the sinking ship.” And they used to feel guilty for having done it. That the vast majority of Indians who ridiculed them did not leave the country because they neither had the opportunity nor the guts to do it and that the ridicule stemmed mostly from jealousy are beside the point. The guilt most Pravasis felt, when they found themselves doing much better than those who stayed back, was real.
“The sinking ship” was the disparaging term in which India used to be described by many in those days. Yes, there is no denying that the ship of India had nearly sunk a few times since the country became independent in 1947. I am referring to the brink of economic collapse it had reached, before the new policies adopted by the late Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, aided by his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, ushered in an era of rapid economic growth. Before the policy change, initiated in 1991, the economic condition in the country was one of gloom: the hard-currency reserve had almost dried up. Without hard currency – US dollar, British pound, deutsche mark, etc. – the country could not import materials badly needed for its development and for repaying the heavy debt it had already incurred.
That’s when Pravasi Indians came to its rescue. The remittances in hard currency, which they regularly made to their relatives back home, came in handy for India to replenish its hard-currency reserve and pay for imported goods, especially the much-needed oil from Gulf countries. That is, Pravasi Indians – even those working in Gulf countries as clerks, nurses, maids, waiters in restaurants and coolies on construction jobs – played a key role in saving India from a possible economic collapse and sparing it the indignity of defaulting on debt repayment.
“Sovereign default” – that’s the unsavory term used when a country reneges on its obligation to repay the money it borrowed from international lending institutions and foreign countries. There is no sovereign in the world, not even the most despicable dictator, who doesn’t squirm when faced with the possibility of defaulting on debt repayment. India was able to spare that indignity thanks to the remittances from its sons and daughters working abroad, including those working on menial jobs. Yes, even coolies who worked on construction jobs in Saudi Arabia, some of whom were later stranded there jobless and penniless, did as much to save India from sinking as professionals who held coveted positions in Western countries.
Role in Rebuilding India
And they did not stop at that. Many of them decided to participate in the economic rebuilding of India. Their participation became easy with the 1991 policy change referred to above. Thanks to that participation, and to other economic measures adopted by the Narasimha Rao government, India soon became the second-fastest-growing economy in the world (the first being China). That is, Pravasi Indians have played a significant role in bringing the country to that enviable position.
Equally remarkable has been the success they achieved abroad in the professions they chose – in science, technology, medicine, the arts, academia and so on – and the service they rendered, through that success, to the countries where they lived. Some of them also entered politics and rose to powerful positions in the governments of those countries.
The net result of all this is that Pravasi Indians began to be treated by the people and government back in India with respect and admiration. It was to show that respect and to tap into their success to mutual advantage that the Indian government decided to hold an annual celebratory event called the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD). The first PBD was held in 2003.
Though it is called “Divas” or “Day”, it is a three-day celebration that ends on January 9. January 9 was chosen as the ending day for an important reason: It was on January 9, 1915, that Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous Pravasi India ever produced, returned from South Africa and took up the leadership of the country’s struggle for independence from British rule. So, the PBD was also meant to be an annual celebration of Gandhi’s 1915 home-coming.
Since it began in 2003, the event has been steadily growing in stature. The number of participants also has been growing steadily. That has to do with the rapid expansion of the Indian diaspora which is already 31.7-million strong, all over the world. It is considered the largest in the world.
The president and prime minister, and federal ministers dealing with diaspora issues, make it a point to attend the Pravasi meet every year. Chief ministers and other ministers from various Indian states have been flocking to the event to woo the Pravasis as investors, offering them all kinds of incentives. The federal government has also been helping them legally and financially – legally in resolving disputes with employers and governments in their host countries; and financially when they fall victim to the unscrupulous practices of recruiting agencies and find themselves stranded abroad. The bond between them and India has been steadily getting stronger.
Recently, the Indian government redefined the term Pravasi to include all persons of Indian origin (PIOs), not just non-resident Indians. Which meant that even the descendants of indentured laborers who left India nearly two hundred years ago, can now claim the rights and privileges which only NRIs enjoyed until then. One of them is the right to get a Person of Indian Origin card, which would enable its holder to visit India without a visa and participate in all sorts of activities, except to vote in elections. Even that exception is likely to end soon. The government and the representatives of the diaspora are working toward that.
This year’s annual Pravasi meet, hosted by the government of Karnataka State, from January 7 to 9, was attended by nearly 2,000 delegates from 72 different countries. When that figure was added to the number of participants from within the country, this year's delegate participation exceeded 7,100 – an “unprecedented” number since the event began in 2003, according to Dnyaneshwar Mulay, secretary in charge of the newly created Indian Diaspora Division in the Ministry of External Affairs. The largest number of delegates came from Gulf countries and the largest contingent – about 150-strong – was from the tiny, but natural gas-rich, Qatar.
There are 650,000 Indians working in Qatar with proper documents and another 100,000 working illegally. Naturally, there were a lot of issues the Qatar delegation wanted to bring to the attention of the Indian government. Several panel discussions were dominated by issues related to those working in Qatar and other Gulf countries. Representatives from the government promised to take all those issues seriously and find appropriate solutions.
The chief guest at this year’s PBD was a PIO, who is a living example of how high a position a Pravasi Indian can reach in the government of his adopted country. He was Dr. Antonio da Costa, the present Prime Minister of Portugal. He received a warm embrace from no less a person than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The convention was jointly inaugurated by these two prime ministers.
With Modi sitting on the dais and admiringly watching, da Costa proudly flashed his PIO card and said: “I am the first person of Indian origin to lead a European nation and I am very proud of my Indian origin.” His father, Orlando da Costa, spent his childhood in Madgaon, Goa, and his first cousin Anna Kaarina Costa and many other relatives still live there. “Though my father left India,” he added, “we never lost our ties with India. I make it a point to visit our relatives in Madgaon whenever I visit India.”
Another person of Indian origin, who rose high as a politician in a foreign country and who was a prominent guest at this year’s PBD, was Michael Ashwin Adhin, Vice President of Suriname. His story is special. It is the story of a descendant of an indentured laborer from India reaching near the top of the political hierarchy in what is called a Girmitiya country.
The word “Girmitiya” is derived from “girmit,” which in turn is a corruption of the word “agreement.” It refers to the deceptive agreements the British entered into with Indian peasants to lure them away to work in the British-owned sugarcane plantations in countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname. About 25 countries into which indentured laborers from India were taken under such agreements, between the early 19th and early 20th centuries, are now collectively called Girmitiya countries.
Mr. Adhin’s story is special in one more respect: He reached the coveted position in the Suriname government at an age when others wouldn't have even figured out what to do with their lives. He is only 36. Fittingly, he was chosen as the keynote speaker at the opening session, entitled “Role of Diaspora Youth in the Transformation of India.” The first of the three days was devoted to youths and titled the “Youth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.”
The pride in his Indian heritage was oozing out of every pore in the body of this great-great-great-grandson of an indentured laborer from India, especially when he was quoting, in Sanskrit, from Hindu scriptures. He did it to emphasize the need for India to transform itself. “India should emerge as a superpower,” he said, “not only because it has the potential, but also because it has spirituality and values that define a Vishwa Guru [teacher of the world].”
Apart from the vice president of Suriname, one more descendant of indentured labourers who has risen to political prominence in a Girmitiya country made an impact on the audience at the Bengaluru meet: Prithirajsing Roopun, Minister for Culture and Arts, Social Integration and Economic Empowerment in the government of Mauritius. Addressing the session entitled “Connecting Contemporary India to Diaspora in Girmitiya Countries: Link to past for a shared future,” he appealed to India to support all Girmitiya countries in their efforts to preserve for posterity the languages, sites, objects and pictures related to indentured labor.
Unpaid Ambassadors of India
Listening to Roopun and Adhin, one couldn’t help wondering: Do paid ambassadors of India promote Indian culture and heritage abroad with half as much enthusiasm and zeal as these descendants of indentured laborers? They, and other Pravasis who do such selfless work deserve to be called unpaid ambassadors of India. Thanks to their work, India now enjoys a cultural presence in every nook and cranny of the world.
If Geet Gawai, an orally handed down musical ensemble, brought to Mauritius by indentured laborers from Bihar two centuries ago, was saved from extinction and made to flourish in Girmitiya countries, eventually gaining recognition from the UNESCO as “The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” we owe it to the unpaid ambassadors among the descendants of indentured laborers living in Mauritius. If an Indian had the heart-warming experience of being greeted with a “Namaste” by a Russian, on a street of St. Petersburg, Russia; or of watching a yoga class conducted by a Brazilian beauty on the sands of Copacabana Beach, in Rio de Janeiro, he owed it to the unsung heroes and unpaid cultural ambassadors among Indians living abroad.
At long last, these heroes and ambassadors have begun to get the recognition that is due them and the rewards they richly deserve. It has come in the form of the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (the Non-Resident Indians Award), given by the Indian govenment to a select few Pravasis for their outstanding achievements. Conferring the awards on them is the finale of the annual Pravasi meet.
There were 30 award winners this year. They live in countries stretching from Australia to the US and are engaged in activities ranging from business to medicine to community service. Conferring the awards on them, President Pranab Mukherjee said: “You are at the forefront of the nation and are the emissaries who narrate to the world the exciting growth story of India….”
Even without the president’s appeal, they have been doing precisely that: working as emissaries of India. Most of them do it without seeking fame or recognition. The stories of their lives tell the world what the sons and daughters of India are capable of accomplishing. Those stories should make any Indian proud. Let me briefly narrate at least two of them. And when I do it, I am in no way belittling the achievements of the other 28 award recipients.
Nisha Desai Biswal, living in the US, won an award in the category of Public Affairs. She was Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, in the Obama administration. Her story is typical of the struggles immigrant families go through in America before they achieve success. It is also one of keeping their ties to where they came from intact even after achieving that success. Her parents, Kanu and Lata Desai, “experienced the anguish of leaving their small town in Gujarat,” she said in her award acceptance speech, which she delivered on behalf of all award recipients. “Kanu Desai and Lata Desai left India,” she added, “but India never left them. This award is a celebration of that journey and a reaffirmation of that connection.”
Not just the award, the whole Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was a celebration of that connection.
Another award recipient, whose accomplishments as a Pravasi impressed everyone, was Zeenat Musarrat Jafri. She got the award for providing quality education to children of Indians living in Saudi Arabia.
She was a school teacher in Lucknow before she went to Saudi Arabia, in 1979, with her husband, Musarrat Jafri, a scientist. She lived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. When her children reached school-going age, she had to make a big decision. She didn’t want to send her children to a Saudi school. She was also moved by the plight of many other Indians living in Riyadh. Most of them had left their children behind in India for the same reason as hers. She decided to do something about it. With some help from the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who during her 1982 visit to Saudi Arabia convinced the Saudi authorities on the plight of Indian children, she started a school affiliated with India’s Central Board of Secondary Education. She financed the school with her family's modest savings.
The International Indian School in Riyadh, opened in 1982 with just 20 students, now has 12,000. Ms. Jafri’s story is certainly awe-inspiring – more to Saudi women than to Indian women. As we all know, in Saudi Arabia, women are still fighting for basic rights which Indian women take for granted. The right to drive is one of them.
What one witnessed in Bengaluru during the three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was a celebration of Pravasi Indians’ accomplishments abroad, and a proud display by them of their Indian heritage.