‘Global Indians’ in the 21st century: Why Desis are the most prepared diaspora for the mad new world order

Members of the Tamil diaspora presenting a traditional dance performance on January 28, 2023, at the Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in Maryland. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

While global remittance to India is the highest received by any country, a record held for the last many years, the World Migration Report shows that 17.9 million people born in India are living abroad. To this add the Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) – government estimates put it at 35 million, and you will see Indians in almost every nook and corner of the globe. This number is constantly growing: some 2.5 million migrate out of India every year.

Mohandas Gandhi and South Africa; Freddy Mercury and Zanzibar; Rishi Sunak and Uganda; V. S. Naipaul, Onika Tanya Maraj-Petty aka Nicky Minaj and Trinidad and Tobago; and numerous past and current prime ministers/presidents in Fiji, Guyana, Singapore, Suriname, Mauritius serve as a great reminder of how deep Indian migration as a phenomenon is embedded in history of pre-Independent India.

In the last 75 years, Indians have reached new shores – from the Anglophone countries, and many other European nations to most of the Middle East. Most of this movement of people has been for economic reasons. If the British colonial project enabled it earlier, the scarcity of labour – low and high skilled, encouraged the spread of Indians later. They have done well wherever they have gone from Ireland’s Leo Vadakar to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Chanel’s Leena Nair and many other global corporate leaders, numerous scientists to World Bank’s Ajay Banga and IMF’s Gita Gopinath.

Shifts in immigration policies

If the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria precipitated migration to Europe in the last decade the recent geopolitical challenges have brought to head the challenge of immigrants and the potential threat of demographic change. It has become a significant policy challenge not just for border management but also for integration into the host community and displacement of the local populace.

The repressive regimes in Belarus, Myanmar, Venezuela and the forever troubled Afghanistan have enabled large migration, and the recent wars in Ukraine and Gaza seem to be changing significant dynamics.

The World Migration Report for the first time in 2022 (2020 data) threw Ukraine among the top few sources of migration. This number has only increased since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The hostilities also have had an impact on how people of the former Soviet Union countries identify themselves. A considerable number of young people who were earlier defining themselves as per host nation or in the case of the older generation as Russians are harking back to their roots. While Russia pushes its agenda of the ‘Russian World’, or some sort of ‘Akhand (undivided) Russia’, people born in the region with Russian as the primary language are shedding the Russian identity and getting back to their, for example, Ukrainian roots and its markers leading to an interesting paradoxical situation of fostering of a “non-Russian Russian-speaking” community.

Shifts in immigration policies in various countries can impact migration trends. Changes in political climates also influence migration patterns, for instance, the difference between Trump’s America and Biden’s. Europe has also been undergoing a churn and after much debate and discussion in December 2023, the European Union got itself a new pact on migration and asylum – a set of regulations and policies to create a fairer, more efficient, and more sustainable migration and asylum process for the European Union.

However, numerous advanced countries are witnessing labour shortages. Demand for low-skilled workers has gone up significantly and this has left many such economies in a bind and the process of policy adjustments is currently on.

While Indians have rarely relocated on account of war or political or religious or ethnic persecution that has often been seen in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, the recent geopolitical changes and the changing perspective of the developed world about migration leads us to ask of what this means for the Indian diaspora and to future re-settlers from India.

Going Forward

Engagement with the diaspora seems to be now an integral part of Indian diplomatic visits abroad. Given the recent changes in global politics, it is quite likely that the Indian diaspora gets increasingly involved with the domestic politics of India and that spills over to the domestic politics of the host country. In this case, the recipient countries will get a flavor of Indian problems and will have to step up measures to keep problems under control. The divisions within the Indian diaspora have already led to diplomatic fracas such as with Canada, the UK and the US.

Indian immigrants are likely to suffer a higher frequency of racism and discrimination often because they will be clubbed with immigrants from West Asia. Entry barriers for skilled immigrants are also likely to be raised. Countries such as Armenia, Georgia, and Mexico, which are in the periphery of the migration hubs of the US, Canada and Western Europe, are and will enhance checks on visitors to their countries who very often disappear to illegally enter North America and Western Europe.

However, given that Indian settlers are generally law-abiding citizens with a high focus on education and are positive contributors to the local economy they are considered a model minority group. India’s rising economic stature and the government of India’s regular engagement with the diaspora have raised the diaspora’s stock within the host nation. Enhanced diplomatic activity and intensified engagement with countries across all continents have also helped the cause of the Indian diaspora.

The government of India’s concerted effort to arrive at a migration and mobility partnership pact with a wide range of countries is likely to blunt much opposition to Indian professionals and workers besides protecting the rights of Indian talent. The changing landscape is increasing the level of uncertainty and risks for everyone – including Indians. There is sizable undocumented or illegal migration across the world.

While the Indian diaspora seems to be best prepared to weather any geopolitical shifts and shocks there however remain some risks. This could play out in multiple ways.

Though quite unlikely, if the government of India were to fall out of favour in the capitals of the world it could create problems for the diaspora quite along the lines of “banned Russians” who have nothing to do with the actual Russian government.

In other situations, the diaspora’s level of integration and adaptation in the host countries will largely shield them from geopolitical shocks and host communities can discern the differences between “Indian Indians” and the Global Indians.

Adaptability of the diaspora

The most optimistic of the different scenarios will be the ability of the Indian diaspora to rise to positions of power and influence in the host country and enable policies to benefit the local Indian community in particular and India in general.

Engaging with the diaspora is a useful diplomatic tool but India should appreciate the difference in the connection that recent emigrants and those that relocated during the colonial times have with India. The Government of India’s objective is to help the Global Desi community “engage and integrate” with the host countries.

But regardless of that “government factor” global Indians look like the most prepared diaspora for the changing world order by keeping the unique balance of the ability to integrate and to keep the ‘desi’ culture alive within and wherever.

Manavendra Prasad. PHOTO:southasiamonitor.org

The author is a public policy advisor on international business in the Indian sub-continent and Eurasia. Views are personal. He can be contacted on LinkedIn or Twitter. and at am@hic-capital.com.



(This article appeared in South Asia Monitor online Feb. 1, 2024. Used under special arrangement with SAM)



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