ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Rhetoric and Reality of Failed Engagement

Promise of Punjabi Diaspora

The Punjabi diaspora is globally dispersed with dense transnational networks. With a long history, its modern incarnation coincides with the beginnings of the Punjabi Suba movement in the 1950s. Over 85% of the Punjabis are now concentrated in Europe and North America. Political turmoil in Punjab in the 1980s created a new conflict-generated diaspora, which has become highly active in both host-land and homeland affairs. The Punjab state government’s response to the promise of Punjabi diaspora’s homeland linkages has shifted from reluctant engagement to indifference and needs a fresh initiative.

Some recent events highlighted below capture the main issue this article addresses: namely, the actual and potential contribution of the Punjabi diaspora to Punjab, and the nature of diaspora engagement since the Punjabi Suba. In 2013, Punjab’s five-time Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, was allegedly served summons, albeit indirectly, whilst attending a private wedding function in Milwaukee, United States (US), which he perceived as a serious personal threat, forcing his sudden departure. Later in 2013, his son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and deputy chief minister was forced to cancel his visit to Canada, supposedly because the Canadian government refused to guarantee immunity against any civil suit filed against him in Canada and because of security concerns during the planned 10-day visit. In May 2016, Amarinder Singh, president of the Punjab Congress party and ex-chief minister, embarked on a tour to North America to rally political and financial support among Punjabis for the forthcoming Punjab elections. Not only did he have a difficult tour; he was refused entry to Canada and ended up claiming that Canada’s decision was influenced by Khalistani organisations. During the past year or so several city councils around the world, with half a dozen in California alone, have successfully passed resolutions recognising the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 as the Sikh genocide. More recently, the overseas-based kabaddi federations with popular support among Punjabis abroad, decided to boycott the Sixth World Kabaddi Cup, sponsored by SAD. The official reason for the boycott was the Punjab state government’s failure to bring action against those responsible for incidences of desecration (beadbi) of the Guru Granth Sahib but the real reason may have been to signal a vote of no-confidence in the Badal mode of governance. I interpret these events as reflecting two important trends. First, the emergence of a more mature, organised and vigorous form of Sikh diaspora political advocacy in host-land and homeland countries. The effective kabaddi boycott demonstrates that anti-government forces among overseas Punjabis are not just limited to the more politicised or conflict-generated section of the Sikh diaspora which emerged from the 1980s onwards. Second, these incidents represent symptoms of a deeply troubled relationship between the Punjab government and a section of Punjabis, largely the Sikh diaspora based in the United Kingdom (UK) and North America. How do we explain this estranged relationship, where a potential “diaspora asset” has seemingly turned out to be a “liability”? Further, how representative is this diaspora–homeland political fissure and does it imply that diaspora–homeland linkages built over many decades are declining or decaying with little chance of reversal in the near future? This article is divided into four sections. First, it provides salient features of post-independent Punjabi migration which starts at the same time as the Punjabi Suba movement and its subsequent formation into a sizeable Punjabi diaspora. Second, it provides an overview on promise of diasporas and reviews the nature of diaspora–homeland linkages and their recent trends. Third, it provides an analysis of Punjab government’s diaspora engagement policies and offers some reasons for their failure. Fourth, it offers concluding remarks, including a possible way forward.

Punjab’s Many Diasporas

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