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Perspectives on the Indian Diaspora

Shuchi Kapuria ( is withthe Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh.

Politics of Migration: Indian Emigration in a Globalized World by A Didar Singh and S Irudaya Rajan, New Delhi, London, and New York: Routledge, 2016; pp xix+198, 895.

Understanding the complexity of international migration has always been a challenge for scholars and those interested in the issue. Earliest attempts at explaining the most basic question of motivation to migrate involved scholars identifying push and pull factors such as lack of economic opportunities, religious or political persecution, occurrence of natural calamities, family reunification, better living and working conditions, and so on. Such a collection of the push–pull factors, however, is inadequate to provide a comprehensive theory of migration that is helpful in explaining its various forms at different times (Portes 1978).

Alternative explanations have involved looking for structural factors, but were found inadequate on the same account. The premise of the present book under review is that a comprehensive understanding of the process of migration requires an understanding of the political context in which it takes place. Countries have used migration and continue to do so, as a policy instrument to achieve certain social, cultural, economic, and/or political objectives. The ability to migrate, the direction of migration, as well as the impact on the countries of origin and destination are guided by policy objectives. Politics of Migration explores different dimensions of international migration—motivation, formation of an Indian diaspora, India’s policy towards its diaspora, its integration into the countries of destination, and the diaspora’s engagement with India and different states of origin, from a political perspective. In this sense, the authors claim that the book is the first of its kind.

Clearing Misconceptions

The first chapter of the book is devoted to dispelling some myths about international migration that have their base in “migration theory.” The authors believe that too much emphasis has been laid on economic compulsions, that is, on the proposition that people migrate from poor regions lacking employment and good living conditions to rich regions that provide these conditions. They argue that data shows migrants do not always belong to poor countries or poorest communities within a country. It is not poverty but the structural changes that accompany development, and the creation of markets that motivate migration. They observe “[there is] a close empirical correspondence between the onset ofindustrialisation and the beginnings of international migration” (p 5).

The fact that the poorest are unableto migrate is well accepted in the literature on migration, given the financial and psychological costs involved in the process. It has also been considered in later modifications to the basic neoclassical theory of wage differentials that the authors set out to criticise (Sjaastad 1962; Todaro 1969). However, their contention that industrialisation and development lead to international migration can only partly explain international migration, as in the case of England during the Industrial Revolution. This may not be true for the regions in the periphery, as in the case of India, that faced deindustrialisation and a setback to the traditional handicrafts-based industries in the villages during colonial times. This was responsible for artisans and small farmers seeking alternative employment, including the option of international migration.

Another myth relates to the direction of migration, popularly thought to be from the South to the North, and believed to lead to an increase of the non-Western population within the Western society, both physically and culturally. The authors contradict this notion that has been responsible for several other misconceptions about immigrants from non-Western countries: that migrants take away jobs from the locals, cause a drain on public services, are responsible for unnecessary population growth, create law and order problems, and are unable to integrate with the host societies.

The authors claim that in reality about “60 per cent of all global migration takes place within the developed world” and “more than 40 per cent of international migration takes place between developing countries, that is, South to South” (p 6). Though South to North migration is not the predominant form of migration, and South–South migration is equally important, and statistics show that North–North migration is about 23% and South–South migration is about 36%–37% of the total global migration (UN 2013). The authors argue that migration is often treated as permanent in nature, ignoring the fact that countries experience high rates of return migration. They further clarify that migrants take up jobs that often face skill shortages, and those which the natives are reluctant to take up. This aspect—the duality in the labour market of developed countries, with the existence of secondary jobs for migrant workers—has been highlighted in the works of Piore (1979) and Sassen (1989), among others.

Low fertility and ageing population in the developed countries have further created demand for migrant labour force. Similarly, the authors argue that while migrants, especially undocumented ones, are treated as a drain on public services, research on foreign-born persons indicate that immigrants are less likely than natives to use public services. For the country of origin, migration may lead to reduced pressure on resources and on the labour markets, and through household remittances and investments, migration may lead to development. These misconceptions, the authors believe, have influenced responses towards the Indian diaspora in the past, and still continue to do so in the present.

Diversity and Engagement

There are two issues that the authors deal with in the second chapter: diversity in the Indian diaspora, and the policy that guides India’s engagement with its diaspora. There are about 27 million people of Indian origin in about 150 countries around the world. Without indulging in the construction of a theoretical explanation or a framework to explain the causes for migration during the colonial or the postcolonial phase, the authors have restricted their analysis to explain the vastness and diversity in the Indian diaspora as an outcome of “mercantilism, colonialism and globalisation” spread over several hundred years (p 17). While, various factors worked on the push and the pull side to motivate migration, they suggest that, it was the internal and the external “political scenario” that determined “choice and the opportunity in migration” (p 22).

During the colonial phase, migration took three different forms, namely, indentured labour migration, Kangani and maistry systems, and passage or free emigration. Largely, all the three patterns involved migration of unskilled workers; those who migrated as free migrants also included professionals and students. The authors claim that European colonisation was the most crucial phase in Indian migration in terms of magnitude and spread, and as a result, “a majority of present-day overseas Indians are the descendants of indentured labourers” (p 22). Postcolonial emigration is characterised by migration of professionals and skilled workers to developed countries such as the United States (US), England, and Canada, and that of skilled and unskilled labourers to West Asia.

On the issue of policy, the authors maintain that India did not adopt any planned policy towards its diaspora, and reactions were based on emerging situations in domestic politics and international diplomatic relations. Before independence, the nationalists showed concern for deplorable working and living conditions of migrant Indian workers, and independence was seen as a prerequisite for improvement in their condition. In the post-independence phase, Nehru’s emphasis was on maintaining harmonious relationship between the Indians settled overseas with the natives, in the interest of India’s diplomatic relations with other countries (p 26). It was in keeping with this approach that the Indian government did not get involved when part of the Indian diaspora underwent discrimination or even expulsion as in the case of Burma, Fiji, and Uganda.

With change in the nature of emigration, India’s policy towards its diaspora has also undergone change. The authors attribute this to increased interaction with the diaspora and benefits in the form of remittances as well as technological, scientific, and managerial know-how. Even as India followed the policy of liberalisation, the authors lament that only “half-hearted attempts” were made to attract diaspora investment (p 40). In their opinion, the shift in the government’s policy over the years exhibits signs of pragmatism as efforts are being made to forge economic and political ties that go beyond the cultural sphere alone.

The Host Society

The extent of incorporation and integration of Indian migrants into the hostsociety and their political mainstreaming have been considered next. In the opinion of the authors, immigration policy is an important tool for the host countries to fulfil their objectives. At the same time, it is important in determining the nature and quantum of migration, and extent of integration of the migrants. Political mainstreaming is seen to result from their increasing numbers, economic position, and integration into the host society.

Some country case studies are discussed. United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia depend heavily on migrant workers for development, but do not have a formal immigration policy in place. Thus, migrant workers remain as temporary migrants, with no rights of permanency or citizenship, or opportunity to integrate. The authors point out that with increasing local youth population and their aspirations, the host countries have to deal with the twin and often contradictory objectives of growing expectations of the local youth and ensuring social and economic development. Their problem is compounded by the fact that their youth lacks the skills and the training required to fulfil labourdemand. Despite efforts at induction of local youth, these countries would continue to depend heavily on migrant workers for their development, and “therefore (migration) remains a critical public policy challenge” (p 52).

European countries follow selective immigration policy of allowing certain categories of migrants to come in and focus on “integrating” those who areallowed in. The authors inform thatEurope has to deal with two contradictory forces: the Eurozone crisis that caused large-scale unemployment and raised concerns over migrants taking away jobs of the locals, and an ageing population that creates need for migrant labour. Though the Indian diaspora constitutes only about 1% or less of the population of the five European countries discussed (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium), the authors maintain that migration forms an important element in India–European Union relations.

Two other countries—the US andAustralia—initially practised discriminatory policies towards non-whites, but over the years have designed their immigration policies in such a way as to ensure an inflow of a pool of professional and qualified migrants, offering them opportunities to integrate into the local society. According to the authors, their immigration policies have revolved around the issues of economic growth and national identity.

The Indian–American community, the authors claim, is considered as a “model community,” but until the 1990s they were almost an “invisible community” due to their weak sense of “national identity” and their “cultural freeze” (p 98). Since then, there has been growing political mobilisation by the community to further India’s foreign policy and security goals and promote India’s economic development. The authors contend that their lobbying efforts to get the sanctions rolled back after nuclear tests in 1998 and their efforts to promote India–US economic ties made them conscious of their identity. The Indian community in Canada has come to hold significant political positions and is contributing to the strengthening of economic ties between India and Canada through various business bodies such as the Canada India Business Council, Indo–Canada Chamber of Commerce and so on.

Experiences of the Indian community in Trinidad, Tobago, and Mauritius—destinations of indentured workers—were different. The authors inform that the Indian community in Trinidad and Tobago has made a slow entry into politics, as the early migrants and first generation of their children were mainly interested in economic advancement. With the election of Basdeo Pandey as the fifth Prime Minister of the country, the community’s visibility in politics has increased. In Mauritius, members of the Indian diaspora were actively involved in the politics of the erstwhile colony, fighting for the right to vote, universal suffrage, and the country’s independence, and still continue to participate in the politics of the country (p 108). For India, strong diaspora community in Mauritius has meant strong bilateral relations with signing of several agreements in the fields of investment, information technology, sports and so on, and India has become the largest exporter of goods and services to Mauritius in the last decade.

Engaging with the Diaspora

The final theme that the authors cover in this book is the nature of engagement of the diaspora community with their respective states of origin within India, especially looking into their role in state politics. The authors inform that each state has created structures and initiated programmes to gain support from its diaspora community. States try to woo its diaspora for investment purposes though only a few states like Gujarat have been successful.

States also try to engage its diaspora in developmental projects such as village development projects in Punjab which have been quite successful. In turn, the diaspora uses its influence to get favours from the state in setting up schools, hospitals, and colleges. It also expects the state to take up issues of their interest. The Malayali non-residential Indian (NRI) organisations, for instance, have pressed for issues like compensation for the Kuwait war, compensation for the relatives of pravasi dying in foreign land, and so on. Punjab has enacted legislations for compulsory registration of NRI marriages, amended legislation relating to encroachment of land belonging to NRIs, etc. Diaspora may also be used as a tool for “soft diplomacy” as in the case of the India–US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (p 124). The government recognises its diaspora’s achievements and contributions through conferring the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

The authors have pointed out gaps in the approach followed by each state. Punjab, the authors suggest, needs to adopt an “inclusive approach” to engage with the various types of its diaspora and also needs to include them in the state’s overall development strategy. Kerala, with its diaspora mainly comprising of low skilled or semi-skilled workforce, has been unable to fully meet the aspirations of its diaspora in protecting their interests and rights in the destination countries and in the process of migration.

Commenting on the political participation of its diaspora, the authors point out that though voting rights were granted to NRIs to involve them in general elections, only a small number turned up to cast their vote suggesting that it may not be feasible for the NRIs to physically return to the state to cast their vote. Similarly, providing Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) status to People of Indian Origin (PIOs) may not lead to participation of PIOs in the political process directly as “OCI is not tantamount to dual citizenship” (p 123). On contesting elections or supporting political parties, authors contend that NRIs and return migrants in Kerala have been elected to the state legislative assembly and have also represented the state in the parliament. Gujarati diaspora actively supports the political parties that contest state elections. This is a result of their financial capacity, cultural and ideological leanings, and the state’s governance, that provide them “high visibility” in the state’s political space.

In conclusion, the authors contend that the Indian diaspora, which has grown over the years in numbers and economic position, would achieve their rightful position in the countries of destination only when they gain political influence. They have further spelt out that India should “realign itself to such a strategy” (p 153).

While there is a wealth of literature on international migration, the authors have specifically dealt with the politics behind immigration policies of the destination countries, its significance in shaping the Indian diaspora, the diaspora’s changing role in the host countries, the community’s engagement with India, and India’s efforts to engage with its diaspora. This makes it an interesting contribution to the existing works on international migration from India. The book would be useful for both researchers and policymakers for the comprehensive treatment of the subject.


Piore, M J (1979): Birds of Passage: Migrant Labour and Industrial Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Portes, A (1978): “Migration and Underdevelopment,” Politics and Society, Vol 8, No 1, pp 1–48.

Sassen, S (1989): “America’s Immigration ‘Problem’,” World Policy Journal, Vol 6, No 4, pp 811–32.

Sjaastad, L A (1962): “The Costs and Returns of Human Migration,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol 70, No 5, pp 80–93.

Todaro, M P (1969): “A Model of Labor Migration and Urban Unemployment in Less Developed Countries,” American Economic Review, Vol 59, No 1, pp 138–48.

UN (2013): International Migration Policies: Government Views and Priorities, New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Updated On : 10th Aug, 2017


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