Wellington, August 15, 2019
India has the largest Diaspora population in the world, with more than 13 million Indians living outside the country and 17 million people of Indian origin spread across 146 countries.
A few months after I entered Parliament, I attended a Conference organised by the Indian government that brought together Parliamentarians and Mayors of Indian origin from around the world.
From memory, there were about 600 of us there (MPs from come countries could not attend as their Parliament was in session at the time).
As I looked around the room, it struck me that India was quite possibly the only country that could host such a Conference – it has a significant Diaspora population globally that is also politically engaged and active.
The Conference had many highlights – meeting so many interesting people who were in positions of influence around the world, all connected by a single thread of Indian-ness was fascinating.
For some, like the Jamaican Attorney-General who was fifth generation Jamaican-Indian, it was their first visit to India. She knew that her ancestors were from Mumbai and was curious about various aspects of Indian culture, but identified predominantly with Jamaica. By contrast, there were many of us (including me) who were born in India and grew up outside the country of our birth but still identified strongly with India.
Tribute to Sushma Swaraj
Meeting Indian politicians like Sushma Swaraj and Shashi Tharoor was yet another highlight. I was sorry to hear of Ms Swaraj’s passing last week.
She was a politician who was liked and respected by politicians across the political spectrum. At the PIO (Person of Indian Origin) Conference, she was generous with her time as the New Zealand delegation spoke to her about some of the aspirations and challenges faced by the Kiwi Indian community.
The Conference was particularly noteworthy because of the sheer diversity of the delegations. There were strong delegations from many parts of the West Indies – the delegation from Guyana was the largest with 20 MPs, three Mayors and the former Guyanese President, Bharat Jagdeo.
There were also strong delegations from Fiji, South Africa and many other African countries. I met delegates from Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America.
I was pleasantly surprised to meet politicians of Indian origin from Switzerland, Portugal and the Philippines.
Waves of Immigration
The presentations by delegates also highlighted the different waves of migration from India – indentured labourers to former colonies including Fiji, the West Indies, Africa and parts of South East Asia like Malaysia and Myanmar (then Burma). In New Zealand we’re familiar with the stories of the Girmityas, those who were taken to Fiji as indentured labourers from India.
There have also been large numbers of Indians, mainly from Kerala, who have migrated to the Gulf States in search of employment.
The next two significant waves of migration from India appear to be the skilled migrants and students who left India to further their careers and academic qualifications respectively. They moved to countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The Prime Ministers of Ireland and Portugal, respectively Leo Varadkar and António Costa are of Indian descent. In the United States, politicians of Indian origin are in key roles both in Trump’s Administration and in the Democratic Party.
The Vice President of Suriname, Ashwin Adhin, is a Girmitya who traces his roots back to Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. There are a number of politicians of Indian origin in Singapore, including the Country’s former President S R Nathan.
It is clear that the Indian government views its Diaspora population as an asset and wants to see them contribute to India’s growth story.
Over the years, contributions of the Diaspora have been significant.
For example, in 2016, India was the world’s largest recipient of remittances.
In fact, remittances have been crucial to the success of certain states in India, like Kerala.
I recently passed through Kochi International Airport, which is the world’s first Airport fully powered by solar energy. A public-private partnership, the Airport saw significant investment by a group of non-resident Indians.
There will always be a special link to the land of our birth/ancestry.
Challenge for youth
Sometimes that leads to our younger generations feeling as though they are caught between two worlds.
However, as Diaspora populations settle into their host country, and it becomes their home, they form their own identities that strengthen over time.
In the Caribbean, it is Chutney Music, a mix of Indian and Afro-Caribbean beats.
We need to realise that we don’t need to lose one to become the other – we don’t need to lose our Indian identity to be Kiwi. We can be both – we define what that looks like.
Priyanca Radhakrishnan is a Member of Parliament on Labour List from the Maungakiekie Constituency in Auckland. She is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ethnic Communities Minister, Member of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and Social Service and Community (Deputy Chairperson) Select Committees of Parliament.