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Threads of Identity: Exploring India’s Diaspora

July 15, 2022 | Expert Insights

Generally, the long list of CEOs who hail from India as published by Forbes every year is a ‘feel good’ factor for most Indians; it sets our spirits soaring. However, the shine on the Indian diaspora has taken a dent lately with the Khalistan protests and the row with Canada around the diaspora grabbing unwelcome international attention. It only emphasises the schisms that inflict this large country.
The statistics around Indian migrants are staggering; the Economist (12 June 2023) claims that Indians form the largest diaspora in the world. Since 2010, they have left the Chinese behind, both in numbers and the success recorded. As per U.N. figures (2020) showing population figures living outside a country’s borders, India tops at 18 million!During his visit to the Maldives in 2020, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Mr Jaishankar, aptly defined the role of the diaspora, “You serve as a vital umbilical cord that nourishes and keeps alive our shared cultural and historical legacy and passes them on to succeeding generations.”

A Legacy of the Past

While the current generation may reap the benefits of having such a large and productive diaspora, it has been a long and hard struggle for the overseas Indians to reach their present exalted status. A word about the original Indian migrant would not be out of place here.The history of the Indian migrant has been traced very appropriately by Mr Vijay Prasad in an article titled “History of the Desi Umbilical” on the website Himmal Southasis (01 December 2010). The early migrants from South Asia have, over the past centuries, settled in the islands of Indonesia, in eastern Africa, and Southeast Asia. During the 19th Century, the five regions of the Indian subcontinent that sent out maximum migrants were Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Bihar.
Sadly, this outward flow was not very enriching in Victorian England; they were only replacing African slaves who had become a political hot potato in domestic politics of Great Britain. Indentured labourers, as they were called, were little better off than slaves and were traded in huge numbers by the arkatis (recruiters), the predecessors to the modern-day human trafficker. Over five million individuals from the subcontinent found themselves sailing to the Caribbean colonies under the most wretched conditions between 1834 and 1916.
However, things began to turn for the better after independence, when Indians could travel on their own national passport. The turning moment came in the 1960s when the U.S. government tweaked its harsh pro-Caucasian immigration rules to attract “highly skilled technical workers (engineers, doctors, scientists, etc.).” This reform dismantled the quotas that had previously constrained Indian nationals and introduced new regulations that prioritised highly skilled migrants. Subsequently, Australia and Canada followed suit by adopting similar immigration policies. This was the right time to be in the U.S. for brown people as the U.S. civil rights movement had won spectacular successes, and this fresh crop of Indian migrants greatly benefited from the privileges the Black American activists won. Since then, the Indians in the U.S. never had to look back.

A Global Presence

Some would call it a ‘generational thing;’ the generation that landed first on foreign shores remains more deeply connected to the homeland than successive generations, weaving the threads of this ‘umbilical cord’ with their places of birth. Fortunately, these linkages have mostly survived generational changes, and as India grows and prospers, even the later generations are no longer shy of reclaiming their Indian roots.
What drives the typical Indian migrant? Without exception, it is their extreme adaptiveness and the fire in the belly to ‘make it good’ in foreign lands and be admired back in their native place, irrespective of the culture, terrain, climate or the reception awaiting them in their newly chosen homeland. Therefore, it is no surprise that they have left no part of the globe untouched with their presence; a well-worn joke amongst Indians is that Neil Armstrong was pre-empted on the moon by an Indian peddling knick-knacks!
Figures from the Indian External Affairs Ministry give an idea of this global footprint- 2.7 million residing in the United States, over 835,000 in the United Kingdom, 720,000 in Canada, and 579,000 in Australia. A significant number of young Indians seek opportunities in the Middle East, where low-skilled jobs in construction and the hospitality sector offer more lucrative prospects. The United Arab Emirates hosts 3.5 million Indian migrants, while Saudi Arabia is home to 2.5 million.
Additionally, substantial Indian migrant communities can be found in various regions, including Africa, other parts of Asia, and the Caribbean. While migrants in the current lexicon being bandied around in Europe has become an ‘ugly word’, as thousands storm the European shores from Asia and Africa, in the Indian context, it has not been a one-way street. The receiving nation has benefited exponentially from the millions of these hardworking, law-abiding, smart, but low-profile citizens.
This Indian human resource pool has significantly contributed to the growth of the global economy. Apart from its crop of “IITians, and IIMites”, who represent the crème de la crème of Indian professionals, India produces a vast number of engineers, software experts, doctors, highly trained nursing staff, lawyers, economists, etc, who too are in great demand abroad. Coming down the social ladder, India’s even vaster pool of low-wage skilled and semi-skilled labourers (carpenters, masons, electricians, drivers, cooks, waiters, etc) positions itself as an attractive global hub of affordable labour.

Over the past few decades, there has been a significant surge in migration from India to regions like the Gulf and North America. For every big-ticket Indian migrant who has made the Forbes List, thousands of unknown faces form the backbone of a respected, hardworking and influential Indian community in every foreign land, working quietly behind the scenes to influence its host nation’s policies in favour of India. The Dawn of Pakistan (26 March 2023) has nicely summed it up when it says, “The dynamic power of the diaspora enables them to become influencers who play a significant role as actors in international affairs. The Chinese and Indian diasporas are the best examples of economic power.”
Yes, the Forbes List Indians matter too, from Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Nobel laureate scientist Har Gobind Khorana, Microsoft CEO Sathya Nadella, and world-renowned music conductor Zubin Mehta. These influential and publicly well-known faces not only influence public opinion but also shape government policies in their countries of residence, to India’s advantage. India greatly benefits from these individuals in attracting large multinational corporations and fostering entrepreneurial ventures.
While earlier generations primarily pursued economic opportunities while keeping a low profile, more recent cohorts have actively engaged in local politics within their host countries. Over the past few decades, numerous political success stories have emerged from the Indian diaspora. In the United States, they are a significant presence in both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as within the government.
Today, there are seven heads of government and states of Indian origin in countries spanning from Portugal, Singapore, Suriname, and Guyana to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Others hold key roles in executive, legislative, judicial, or party positions, such as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the U.K. and Leo Eric Varadkar, the Taoiseach of Ireland (in his second tenure).
Indian soft power has been growing; the global dissemination of Yoga, Ayurveda, Indian spiritualism, Bollywood, and Indian cuisine has made India a well-recognised brand. It has even contributed to reviving many historical relationships with other countries. This would not have flowered without the diaspora’s active participation and immense investments.
Increasingly, in times of natural disasters and public unrest, the Indian diaspora steps in with to provide food, shelter and humanitarian assistance. The sight of a Sikh langar or a Hindu temple doling out nourishing victuals to victims of natural and manmade disasters abroad has become a familiar viral item on social media, even if the mainstream media ignores them.
However, there is a catch; Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor credited with coining the term “soft power,” emphasises that the existence of a diaspora alone does not automatically generate such power. He suggests that it is the success and positive image created by members of the diaspora that can benefit their country of origin.

The Right Mix

Indians possess the fundamental elements to become a prominent source of talent for the global market: a large population of young individuals and a top-tier higher education system. The proficiency of Indians in the English language, a legacy of British colonial influence, is likely a contributing factor. Data from the Migration Policy Institute, an American think-tank, reveals that only 22 per cent of Indian immigrants in the United States aged five and above report having no more than a limited grasp of English, in contrast to 57 per cent of Chinese immigrants.
Immigration regulations in wealthy nations often prioritise graduates who can fill roles in professions that demand skilled workers, notably in fields such as medicine and information technology. In 2022, a noteworthy 73 per cent of America’s H-1B visas, designated for skilled professionals in “speciality occupations” like computer scientists, were granted to individuals born in India.
A work visa abroad, especially to a wealthy Western nation, does not come easy these days; one must compete globally. It has become almost second nature for many of India’s most talented and accomplished individuals to consistently prepare themselves for potential migration, even as they graduate. In fact, hundreds of coaching institutes and ‘facilitators’ have mushroomed in India to make your transition overseas smooth, of course, at a hefty price. Arvind Subramanian, a former economic advisor to the Indian government, describes them as “highly positively selected migrants.” This assertion is supported by the outcomes of students who undertook the fiercely competitive entrance examinations for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the nation’s premier engineering institution, in 2010. Eight years later, researchers discovered that 36 per cent of the top 1,000 performers had chosen to migrate abroad, with the figure rising to 62 per cent among the top 100.
Another common factor fuelling the political influence of diaspora Indians is their resolute pursuit of higher education qualifications and their advancement in their host countries’ professional hierarchies. Despite encountering racism and prejudice, many individuals of Indian descent have demonstrated pragmatism and determination to showcase their abilities and worth.
In nations where merit is deemed crucial for progress, individuals of Indian descent actively seek and diligently work towards seizing golden opportunities. Given the direct link between education, wealth, and political influence in democratic systems, the diaspora’s political ascent is firmly rooted in these structural foundations.

Money Matters!

The relationship with its diaspora has been profitable in India’s development journey. As per figures available in the public domain, in 2022, India recorded an all-time high of nearly $108 billion in inward remittances, constituting approximately 3 per cent of its GDP, surpassing any other nation. Overseas Indians, equipped with valuable contacts, language proficiency, and expertise, significantly enhance cross-border trade and investment.
When diaspora members visit India, they tend to contribute significantly to local economic activity through their spending. Due to strong cultural and emotional ties, they are often inclined to donate to domestic charities.
Additionally, they bring technical expertise and domain knowledge to support domestic startups and frequently act as angel investors. Diaspora Indian faculty abroad volunteer their time and resources to enhance the quality of education at Indian institutions, exemplified by the Indo Universal Collaboration of Engineering Education.
In fact, Indian migrants tend to be relatively affluent even in their host countries. They rank as the highest-earning migrant group in the United States, boasting a median household income of nearly $150,000 annually. This figure is double the national average income and significantly surpasses that of Chinese migrants, who have a median household income of over $95,000.

A National Imperative

Recognising these emerging trends, India aims to harness this potential to enhance the well-being of its citizens living in poverty at home; our large population and limited jobs in India do not add up to the right arithmetic! Some critics may consider it derogatory to ‘sell our labour short’ in rich countries, but employment scores over emotions anytime.
In fact, our neighbour has taken it to the next level. There was an indignant uproar in Pakistan last month when its Overseas Ministry Secretary made the startling revelation that a staggering 90 per cent of beggars arrested in foreign countries were of Pakistani origin!
Apparently, attracted by the crowds massing at Islamic pilgrim sites in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, many local beggars abandoned their traffic light beats to buy a ticket to El Dorado overseas.The Indian government has a more serious perspective on its manpower resources. It considers this a strategic asset for the country, not to be depleted for short-term gains. In some quarters, it has been proven right by ‘reverse brain drain’ wherein highly qualified professionals have returned to India with their wealth and knowledge. In advanced countries, the mutual exchange of professionals and experts is a well-recognised phenomenon that benefits both parties.
Another driving force behind the growing political influence of diaspora Indians is the establishment of their own ethnic organisations and advocacy groups. Much like influential Jewish organisations that have played a pivotal role in supporting Israel’s interests globally, these associations comprising people of Indian origin are now championing the interests of New Delhi in various countries and exerting influence on policymaking.
For instance, the decision by the U.S. House of Representatives to grant an exemption from potential sanctions against India regarding its acquisition of advanced Russian weapons systems. This development underscores these diaspora associations’ impact on shaping and influencing policy decisions.
The initiative was championed by California Representative Rohit Khanna, a prominent member of the “samosa caucus” in the United States, a group of diaspora Indians who offer mutual support and maintain connections with the Indian government.
Since people of Indian origin frequently secure political office in Western nations by appealing to voting blocs that encompass diaspora Indians, these associations and advocacy groups play a pivotal role as substantial launching pads for their careers.

Niggling Issues

The Indian diaspora is a diverse and multifaceted group with varying demands and expectations from the Indian Government. These differences often lead to negative campaigns and foreign funding activities that are in opposition to the policies of the Indian government. This has been evident in the protests in support of farmers’ rights and the recent upsurge in pro-Khalistan activities in the U.K., U.S. and Canada.
Historically, different segments of the Indian diaspora have made demands that conflict with Indian government policies. These include calls for the nullification of Article 370 in Kashmir, opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and concerns about the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an anti-globalisation wave, resulting in many Indian migrant workers returning to India and facing restrictions on emigration. This has created economic hardships for both the Indian diaspora and the Indian economy.
The situation in West Asia remains turbulent, and after the ongoing war in Gaza, it is likely to deteriorate further. Any conflict in the region could lead to a mass return of Indian nationals, affecting remittances and the job market.
Challenges related to Indian regulations and bureaucracy hinder the diaspora’s ability to collaborate with India or invest in the country. Issues such as bureaucratic red tape, multiple clearances, and a lack of trust in government processes act as barriers to fully realising the opportunities presented by the Indian diaspora.
Contrastingly, the most significant source of remittances to India currently comes from the Gulf States, which employ a large population of lower-skilled migrant workers. To fully capitalise on the potential of its diaspora, India must find ways to better engage with the overseas Indian community for investment, knowledge transfer, and research and development (R&D) activities.

Making the Road Smoother

The government has taken some important measures to foster integration between the overseas community and the homeland. This includes granting the overseas Indian community easier access through overseas citizenship or “Person of Indian Origin” cards and facilitating remittance through NRI checking accounts.
However, these are insufficient to entice significant numbers of expatriates to return and work in India. Paradoxically, India treats the diaspora, often referred to as Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), as foreigners, subjecting them to escalating visa fees in response to similar hikes imposed by countries restricting Indian visitors.
Furthermore, Western nations grappling with ageing populations and a shortage of science and engineering professionals actively seek to attract Indian doctors and experts.
A substantial percentage of physicians trained in India have already emigrated. This substantial “brain drain” affects vital sectors of India’s economy, particularly in engineering and biotechnology, where as much as 90 per cent of post-graduates opt for the U.S. upon completing their studies in India.
This situation forms part of a broader challenge for India, which is currently refocusing on creating an affordable, educated labour force within an attractive and business-friendly environment for domestic and foreign enterprises.
A deficient education system with insufficient capacity, coupled with the emigration of skilled professionals, results in a shortage of skilled labour in India, leading to wage inflation compared to other low-cost countries. Consequently, India could become less competitive in these sectors.
Thus, India’s challenge transcends merely harnessing the potential of successful Indians abroad. It must establish an appealing ecosystem for studying and working to retain its most talented individuals. This is crucial for ensuring that Indian businesses and foreign investors continue to invest in the country.