KIGALI (RWANDA) – It’s well known that Indians are all around the world. No matter what country you go to, look enough and you’ll find a face that reminds you of home. But when these faces come together, an instant and powerful sense of community arises; despite where life has taken us, we are anchored by our common nationality and heritage.
This form of diasporic communities materialized once again, this time to celebrate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Rwanda, on his way to the BRICS conference in South Africa.
Over 800 Indians living in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, and from around East Africa, were invited to attend, and hear a few words from their home country’s leader. Though I myself don’t live in Kigali, I am working in this city with an NGO for the summer, thanks to a fellowship from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and so I had the opportunity to attend as well.
The crowds descended at the Kigali Serena Hotel, as early as four hours before the event, eager to see Modi. As I walked in, I saw Indian flags waving right alongside Rwandan ones on the road leading up to the hotel, and involuntarily began to hum the tune of ‘saare jaahan se aachan.’
As invitees registered and went through security, there was a tangible buzz, an excitement about this opportunity. An instant diasporic community was being formed once again, as we all played the familiar game of “aacha, aap unke __ ho, ” rapidly breaking down our degrees of separation in a way unique to Indians.
These instant diasporic communities are like 2-minutes instant Maggi noodles, something I’ve definitely taken advantage of in my time in Rwanda. Produce the basic ingredients, add some energy, and you’ll quickly have something that reminds you of home. So, in this noise and chaos where everyone was rushing to find their pass enter, and where invitees were arguing with volunteers in at least four different languages, I felt like I belonged.
Before the main event, there was a cocktail dinner provided for all guests for about an hour (since they requested we don’t bring our phones, most people were not able to keep track of time, probably for our own good).
I met Indians who had been living in Kigali for over 30 years, and described the rapid growth in this city unlike anything they’ve ever seen. Others I met had lived in the city for 8-15 years, but no matter how long they’d lived away from India, everyone had the same joyous reaction when the pakoda tray came around.
Soon, we were moved to the main event room, where barriers were put on two sides of a main red carpet, and all invitees were struggling to find a spot in the front of the crowds so that they could see the Prime Minister.
The barriers were decorated with tiranga-colored bannisters and flowers, and signs of the phrase ‘Namo’ hung all over the ceiling. In the pushed-up crowds, reminding of a city metro or bus, stories were shared about how long the journey was to get to the event; for some, it was a 5-minute moto (taxi) ride, for others, it was a seven-hour trip from DR Congo.
Right before the Prime Minister entered, Indian flags were passed around and the volunteer security, from the Indian Association of Rwanda, got in place. Slowly the doors opened, cameramen started rushing in, and then came the Prime Minister. The crowd burst into chants, whether it be “Mo-di-ji, Mo-di-ji,” or “Vande Materam.” Even he took a moment to look up and soak in the atmosphere before beginning to interact with the crowd. As he walked right by me and looked up, I was elated.
Once he reached the stage, he was introduced briefly, before taking place at the podium. Once again, the crowd burst into chants. Having stood up on a chair, I was able to see him clearly, as well as the excitement on people’s faces: this instantaneous diasporic community was in a celebratory mood.
Right off the bat, Modi acknowledged the power of the Indian diaspora with a cricket analogy: just as how television viewers can more clearly see the key moments of the game than those in the stadium, so does the Indian diaspora often pay more attention to the news and progress of their homeland than the people that reside within.
These words rung true; invitees proceeding to shout out how often they visit India, to Modi’s amusement: “aap har do maheena aate ho?” Citing a range of events next January, such as the Vibrant Gujarat Summit from January 18th-20th, he invited us all to come visit India once again, and even stay if we’d like.
Discussing the progress of his homeland, Modi then asked the crowd if they’ve felt the power of India rise internationally in the past few years, if they felt more proud to show their passport when they are in line at immigration counters around the world. He was met with a resounding yes, and so he indulged us further by describing his vision for an India that will rapidly climb up the ranks of the strongest economies in the world.
Before leaving, he mentioned his discussions with Rwandan President Paul Kagame earlier in the day, and how Kagame had praised the Indian community in Rwanda for playing an active role in developing the country and benefiting their society, without causing any trouble, and called us all India’s ‘rashtradhoot.’
Perhaps because of this positive impression, India has been able to able to sign two more lines of credit worth around $100 million each, as well as various MoUs on inter-parliamentary dialogue, innovation, and visa requirements, thus fostering ties with Rwanda and the rest of East Africa.
Clearly, PM Modi has learned to harness something that I’m even just beginning to understand: the power of the Indian diaspora in possibly every country around the world. Indians travel and settle abroad to look for opportunity, and through their hard work and efforts, they create a foundation for national-level relationships between their homeland and their country of residence. This is an economic and political tool very few countries have, and so PM Modi has often taken advantage of this in foreign relations. As an Indian-American, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon often in America, but seeing it on a different continent altogether was truly inspiring.
Before he left, he announced the creation of a new Indian High Commissioner position in Rwanda, to the crowd’s applause. As he greeted the crowds once again on his way out, I began to realize something that PM Modi knows well: not only are Indians everywhere, but when you harness the power of these diasporic communities, India can be everywhere as well.
(Siddharth Muchhal is a student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service Class of 2021, who is doing a summer internship in Rwanda. Siddharth is from West Windsor, New Jersey, and is originally from Indore, Madhya Pradesh.)