Vol. XVIII, No. 206, February 2019​​​​

Indian Diaspora's 15th Get-Together

A Remarkable Display of
Pride and Patriotism

​​​​​By M. P. PRABHAKARAN

President Ram Nath Kovind of India delivering his valedictory speech, at the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Non-Resident Indians Day) convention, held in the holy city of Varanasi, in the northern Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, on January 21-23, 2019. 



​​​​​​The 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Non-Resident Indians Day) celebrations did not follow the traditional pattern. Traditionally, PBD celebrations used to commence on January 9. That date was chosen in commemoration of the return to India of the most famous pravasi (NRI) the country ever produced. It was on January 9, 1915, that Mahatma Gandhi returned to India, after working as an attorney and civil rights activist in South Africa for 21 years, to lead the country’s struggle for independence from Britain.​​

The 15th PBD convention, jointly organized by the government of India and the state government of Uttar Pradesh, decided to move it to January 21-23, 2019. One could guess that they did it for a few good reasons.
 
The venue chosen for the convention was the holy city of Varanasi in U.P. Allahabad, recently renamed Prayagraj (which had been its original name before Mogul emperor Akbar changed it to “Illahabad” which eventually became Allahabad) is only 80 miles away from Varanasi. Prayagraj is one of the four places that celebrate Kumbh* Mela (the Kumbh festival) once in 12 years. (The other three places are Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.) Prayagraj is also the place where three rivers – the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mystical Saraswati – are said to meet. As the first two rivers are real and as the colors of their waters are slightly different, one can see the line formed by their merger. But ordinary mortals cannot see any sign of the merger of the third one, the Saraswati, for the obvious reason that it is mystical.
 
According to Hindu mythology, one who takes a holy dip at the Sangam, which is what the confluence of the three rivers is called, cleanses oneself of all sins and paves the way for moksha (salvation, meaning liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth). Large numbers of believers from around the world flock to Prayagraj all through the year and take their holy dips at the Sangam. The numbers run into millions during the Kumbh Mela. It has been reported that on January 21, the first auspicious day for the holy dip during the mela that is going on now, over 10 million devotees congregated on Prayagraj and took their dips.
 
The exact period of the festival is determined by planetary alignments. This time, it happened to be from January 15 to March 4, 2019. So, the organizers of the 15th PBD decided to give an additional incentive to the NRIs to attend the convention by moving its date to one that fell within the period of the Kumbh Mela. They made the incentive more attractive by offering free bus rides from Varanasi to Prayagraj and all facilities for the devotees’ ablutions at the Sangam.

More than 3,300 of the 7,228 registered PBD delegates (not counting the last-minute, on-the-site registrations) grabbed the offer. They joined the caravan of 90 buses provided by the U.P. government for their pilgrimage to Prayagraj on January 24. Meticulous care was taken by the authorities to ensure their security: Each bus had a security personnel on board. There was a large contingent of security personnel present at Prayagraj, too.

PBD Must Be Secular

This gesture on the part of the organizers was not entirely without criticism. Questions have been asked whether it was made with a view to promoting Hindutva, the ideology espoused by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is in power both in New Delhi and in U.P. The questions gained more relevance on the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Pravasi Bharatiya Tirth Yojana, a new initiative on the part of the government to facilitate NRIs’ pilgrimage to tirths (sacred places) in India. The reason for the added relevance was the announcement by Dnyaneshwar Mulay, secretary in the external affairs ministry in charge of overseas Indian affairs, that all such pilgrimages would be funded by the government. It may be added that many in the audience had by then (January 22) already visited many holy places, like Kashi Vishwanath Temple, in the nearby areas, at government expense. “Isn’t it a blot on India’s secular image?” some in the audience were heard say.

They were somewhat assuaged when Manoj Mohapatra, a joint secretary in the same ministry, announced that “People of all religions will be selected for these yatras [trips].” The authorities would do well in the future to keep events like PBD convention above religion and above politics. After all, many of the proud members of the Indian diaspora who attend them belong to religions other than Hinduism. Even most of the Hindus who attend are secular and apolitical.

No question would ever be raised, though, on the other incentive the organizers offered to attract larger audience to the convention, the offer to enable them to attend this year’s Republic Day parade in New Delhi. For most of them, this spectacular annual event that instils pride in every Indian and every person of Indian origin had remained only in the realm of dream until recently. They found in the government offer an opportunity to realize their dream. The offer was to transport them at government expense all the way from Varanasi to New Delhi and guarantee them seats among the invited guests at the parade. More than 3,000 PBD participants grabbed this offer, too.
 
The expense part of transporting them was minor, compared with the numerous other details that had to be taken care of. First, they were taken from Varanasi to Prayagraj by bus, and from there to New Delhi by trains commissioned by the Indian Railways specially for this purpose. Once they reached the New Delhi railway station after an all-night train journey, they were issued passes, with their names written on them, to attend the parade. Then they were taken to different areas of Delhi where they had made their own arrangements for their stay (the only thing paid for by them). And then, starting from 6 a.m. on January 26, government-deployed buses picked them up from various points near their places of stay and brought them to Rajpath, the famous boulevard in New Delhi on which the Republic Day parade is held.
 
Hats off to the employees of India’s external affairs ministry, of the Uttar Pradesh government, of the Indian Railways and to the hundreds of volunteers whose untiring work made all this possible. The grateful beneficiaries of their work were the NRIs who came to the convention from 85 different countries. To throw in an aside, the Indian diaspora, which is 31-million-strong and spread all over the world, is said to be the largest in the world. They are the real ambassadors of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being redundant when he reminded them, during his inaugural address on January 22, that “your roots are in India.” Their pride in their roots was palpable all through the celebrations, all the way from Varanasi to New Delhi.

NRIs' Role in Building a New India

Unlike Prime Minister Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind and U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath delivered their messages to the NRIs in a tone that did not have a tinge of condescension. After honoring 30 of them with Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (Non-Resident Indian Award) for their contributions in various fields like medicine, business, community service and academe, he began his valedictory address evoking memories of the greatest NRI, Mahatma Gandhi. He reminded the audience that this was the year of the mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary. To the NRIs in the audience, he said: “We are proud of you and your achievements. What makes your contribution stand out are your values which intrinsically remain Indian.”

Before that, at the same valedictory session, Chief Minister Aditynath had evoked the memory of another great Indian, Subhash Chandra Bose. After reminding the audience that the day he was addressing them, January 23, was Bose’s birthday, he talked about how he worked for the freedom of India as an NRI and about the “important role played by [other] NRIs in his work.” Then he added: “India is now emerging as an economic super-power and NRIs are integral to” it.

“Role of Indian Diaspora in Building a New India” was the theme of the 15th PBD convention. The way the representatives of the diaspora conducted themselves at the convention gave everyone the impression that all of them were more than keen on playing that role. Their enthusiasm to help build a new India by putting to good use the expertise and experience they have gained from their work in advanced foreign countries was discernible from the questions they asked at various plenary sessions.  

I happened to be with some members of the 404-strong contingent from the United Arab Emirates. Throughout the bus journey from Varanasi to Prayagraj and the train journey from Prayagraj to New Delhi, they broke into songs now and then, both in Malayalam and Hindi. Every time a song ended, all of them would shout at the top of their voices: “Bharat Mata Ki Jai [Victory to Mother Bharat].” I was overwhelmed with emotion watching it.

There was another journalist traveling with me who was overwhelmed too: Ravi Sharma of Lyca Radio from London. He broadcast their performance live to his radio audience back in London. “Look at their display of patriotism,” he exclaimed to me.

It was not ordinary delegates to the convention alone who demonstrated their pride in their Indian roots. Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth of Mauritius, who was the chief guest at the event, did it through various gestures. At several points in his keynote address, he switched from English to Bhojpuri, the native language of Bihar from where his ancestors were taken to Mauritius as indentured laborers. “Our ancestors may have left India decades ago,” he told the audience, “but each time we travel to India, especially to a place like Varanasi, our heart and mind tell us that India has never left us.” What better proof of his pride in his heritage is needed than that he had brought with him to the convention 412 fellow Mauritians, all of them descendants of indentured laborers from India. Their expense was entirely borne by the Mauritian government. That 413 of the 882,000 people of Indian origin living in this tiny nation of 1,270,150 ventured to come to the convention is a testament to the fact that they are as proud of their Indian roots as their prime minister is.

Another notable feature of the 15th PBD convention was the dance-drama presented by Hema Malini. Since she arrived on the scene as a teenager, in the 1960s, she has made marvelous contributions to the country through her multifarious activities – as a dancer, actress, writer, director and producer of films, politician and so on. The audience was wonder-struck that, at the age of 70, she could dance as captivatingly as she did as a teenager. The theme of the dance-drama was the cleaning of the Ganga, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minster Yogi Adityanath. Her presentation was an eclectic blend of what Hindu mythology says about the River Ganga and the latter-day campaign to raise people’s consciousness on the need to cleanse it of the pollution caused by them. The performance by her and her talented troupe was spell-binding. The organizers of PBD 2019 and Hema Malini deserve praise for giving the campaign to clean the Ganga the much-needed boost.


















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*Kumbh literally means pot. According to Hindu mythology, it contains nectar churned from the ocean of milk and is meant for distribution, not for hoarding. The nectar symbolizes “knowledge and spirituality [that] must be churned from within us and shared with humanity.” The Kumbh Mela or the Kumbh festival symbolizes the celebration of that sharing. The festival has been acclaimed by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” 

​​​(Published on February 7, 2019)

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Reader's Response

Why Are Americans So Lonely?

This is in response to the article, “Why Are Americans Becoming So Lonely?” published by you on November 27, 2018 .

Americans are becoming lonely because their country has chosen to be lonely. The United States always wants to win, no matter what the cost. Winners always want to stand out. The inevitable consequence of standing out is standing alone, standing just by oneself.

We all know what Americans did in Kuwait during the 1990-91 war; and have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq since their invasion of those countries. They are not content with just winning. After winning, they also supervise the destruction of their enemy, meaning the country and people that don’t toe their line. If they cannot do it themselves, they use the armed forces of those countries to get it done. In other words, they make those armed forces engage in self-destruction.

After completing the destruction of the ‘enemy’ country, they undertake the task of reconstructing it themselves. The contracts for reconstruction always go to the cronies of those in power.

If the CIA had conducted a thorough investigation of the canard spread by the George W. Bush administration that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to the U.S., the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destruction of that country would not have happened. 

There is a thing called poetic justice. You know it better. That’s the only explanation for what the U.K. and the U.S. are going through now. It is God’s way of meting out justice.

--Salim Hassankutty, Thiruvananthapuram, India, January 31, 2019



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Picture Left: A section of the audience at the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention, held in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India, on January 21-23, 2019. Picture Right: A group of pravasis (NRIs), on their way to Prayagraj, after the convention, to participate in the Kumbh Mela. Throughout their three-hour bus journey, they were singing, both in Hindi and Malayalam, and shouting slogans in praise of India. Two jounalists on the bus were moved by their patriotism. 

​​Books by M. P. Prabhakaran​​

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