India’s Diaspora outreach — Is it a double edged sword?

India needs to develop a coherent and strong diaspora strategy that includes strategic evacuation operations

By Guru Aiyar (@guruaiyar)

As Bangalore played host the 15th edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas (PBD) from January 7-9, it is interesting to ponder over how a strong Indian diaspora policy has evolved over a period of time and what major challenges can be expected in the future. The theme for 2017—“Refined Engagement with Indian Diaspora” says it all. According to eminent diaspora scholar Latha Varadarajan, the Nehruvian model of engagement with the Indian diaspora was one of eschewing any strong bond with India and to completely merge with local culture. The strongly contrasts with the present actions of the Indian government.

The implication of Nehru’s views was that the diaspora could not expect India to fight for their rights and therefore India’s foreign policy was accordingly structured as a model of non-interference whenever the emigrant Indians got into trouble in Sri Lanka, Myanmar etc. This naturally reflected the ethos of post-colonial independent India that was trying to make its presence in the international politics of Cold War era. With India’s rising economic power and military might, things have changed drastically. This has further got accentuated due to the high remittances that Indian diaspora contribute. At $ 69 billion, India has been the highest recipient for 2015. India’s non-alignment posture also precluded it from taking any sides in conflict zones. But commencing 1990, India has been engaged in major evacuations of Indians from conflict zones, the highlight being Yemen in 2015.

With the coming into power of Modi government in 2014, the proactive outreach with the diaspora has reached heights not seen before. From Madison Square to Sydney, Suva to Dubai, his words have echoed a singular sentiment. The colour of passport does not matter. The only thing that is relevant is whether a person is Indian or not. That is enough for him to get help from the Indian government. Moreover, the merger of Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards has brought the relationship closer.

Such a politically charged policy has huge implications on domestic as well as foreign policy. Why foreign policy? Because assuring Indian diaspora of help in all circumstances could become a double edged sword. In the US, which is known as the land of immigrants, Indians have acquired a sizable financial and political clout. With rising nationalist fervor demonstrated by Trump’s elections, as long as going is good, India can take it easy. What if the US hits another recession that leads to large scale loss of jobs? Logic dictates that in such a surcharged atmosphere, the politicians will naturally play to the local interests. Will the Indian government stand by its word and make provisions for them in home country? Won’t it have severe implications on the existing capacity that is already under strain? Worse still, there is a need for a strategic diaspora evacuation policy from conflict zones in a world where crises materialize without warnings and give very little reaction time for governments.

Constantino Xavier of Carnegie India contends that in the event of lack of standard of operating procedures, evacuations could prove extremely difficult in spite of past successes. He goes on to say that countries such as Australia, the UK, the US etc. have comprehensive policies on this and India needs to develop doctrines for this. The Indian maritime and air force doctrines do talk about non combatant evacuation operations (NEO) using ships and heavy lift aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster. To compare US and UK whose diaspora numbers are much lesser compared to Indian diaspora (about 28 million—16 million non-resident Indians and 12 million permanent residents abroad) could be ludicrous at best. Needless to say, at about $ 600 billion, the US military spending is highest (more than the next 14 countries in the list) in the world that gives it a natural muscle for such large scale interventions.

Even if the above is not an ‘apple to apple’ comparison of capacities, the extremely strong outreach by the government and the shrill nationalistic rhetoric has resulted in very high expectations of the Indian diaspora from the government of the day —whether BJP or any other administration. While conducting diaspora operations, does the financial muscle of diaspora play a role? Norm says it shouldn’t, but practical experience indicates otherwise. According to Ambassador K.P. Fabian, who was in charge of operations of the largest airlift of Indian expatriates from Kuwait in 1990, well-off and high profile Indians were eager to board the aircraft ahead of women and children. A humanitarian rescue mission therefore as a policy, cannot discriminate between a rich businessman/technology professional and an unskilled worker. The issue becomes further complicated if the diplomatic mission is tasked to decide between an Indian citizen and a PIO.

The present capacity is extremely inadequate if India were to attempt a mass evacuation due to conflict situation from say Saudi Arabia where about 3 million Indians work. A crisis in Saudi Arabia in July 2016 saw Indian workers directly reaching out to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for help. In all probability, plans must have been made to get them out in an emergency. How far it could have been successful cannot be said. But one thing is certain—there is an urgent need for a coherent government policy on the diaspora with a special emphasis on capacity development along with a doctrine for evacuation operations.

Guru Aiyar is a Research Fellow with Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank on geopolitics and strategic affairs and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image: C-17 Globemaster strategic airlift aircraft, Marksontop courtesy

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