Indian diaspora seen through government lens: From patriots to pariahs

Foreign destructive ideology: Distance between diaspora & Delhi rises

Diaspora

February 10, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Indian diaspora seen through government lens: From patriots to pariahs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Indian diaspora in Netherlands in 2017 (Photo/MEA Twitter)

Once a darling of the government and hailed as patriot and hero, Indian diaspora soon risks becoming a pariah especially as it increasingly criticises government for its policies, notably vis a vis farmers’ protest.

For the first six years of his rule as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi could not tire of singing praises of the Indian diaspora, especially as he flitted in and out of close to 100 nations, often marking the first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the country.

His outreach to the diaspora was extremely well-organised and orchestrated to near-perfection. As a result, anywhere Modi went in the world, the Indian diaspora was always present, often at the airport itself, to give him a rousing welcome.

Modi, like many of his predecessors, roundly praised the members of the diaspora, numbering close to 32 million spread across the globe, as being the most important representatives of India. “Today if the world reposes so much trust in India, the role you have played so far has a major contribution in this,” he said while addressing the diaspora on occasion of the latest edition of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 9, 2021.

It had seemed that Modi was inseparable from the ensemble of the diaspora and nothing could ever come in between. For the diaspora, too, Modi, with his frequent appearances as well as his oratory powers and of course bombastic statements, had turned out to be the Indian hero that they had been longing for. Hence, Modi was cheered and welcomed wherever he went.

However, of late, notably for the past few weeks, there has been a visible cooling off of the relationship that Modi had so far enjoyed with his constituents overseas. The main reason for this about turn seems to be the ongoing protests against last year’s farm laws by millions of farmers across India.

Even in the run up to the US Presidential elections last November, a few members of the Indian diaspora in the United States as well as Canada and the United Kingdom had been raising the farmers’ protest and urging the Indian government to quickly resolve the issue and allow the farmers to return to their homes and farms.

However, the Modi-diaspora relationship seems to have nosedived sharply after the violence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on January 26, when a large number of farmers landed up at the iconic landmark of the country, soon after the Republic Day parade was over. The government responded by sending in many more security forces at the various borders of Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have camped since November end and also dig up roads, build concrete walls on the roads and plant huge nails to stop any vehicles from crossing over to the capital. For a good measure, the government also cut off the internet as well as power and water supply at the protest sites.

This caught the attention of global celebrities and activists. Following the suspension of internet, international celebrities like pop singer Rihanna, lawyer-author Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris as well as environment activist Greta Thunberg spoke up in favour of the protests. Following this, a number of others spoke out against the government and its attitude towards the protesting farmers.

A tweet by pop singer Rihanna didn’t go down well with the Indian government (MIG photos)

However, this didn’t go down well with the Indian government and soon MEA released a statement about ‘foreign interference’ in India’s ‘internal affairs’.

In a speech, Modi went a step ahead and said that a new community had emerged over the last few years, that being the “andolan jeevi”, or protest parasites. “In the last few years, we have witnessed a new category of protesters, ‘andolan jeevi’, who can be witnessed in every agitation. We need to protect this country from these andolan jeevis, who are actually ‘parjeevi’ (parasite). They don’t have their own strength, but they join all agitations,” he said.

And on Monday, while speaking in the Rajya Sabha, upper house of the Indian Parliament, Modi spoke of protecting the country from ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’.

“The nation is making progress and we are talking about FDI but I see that a new FDI has come to the fore. We have to protect the nation from this new FDI. We need Foreign Direct Investment but the new FDI is ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’, we have to protect ourselves from it,” said the Prime Minister.

For the diaspora, the turnaround in Modi’s attitude is vicious. Members of the diaspora say a voice of dissent has today become destructive ideology, but the same voice, when it was cheering him in the US or UK, it was hailed as patriotic.

“If you watch Modi closely then you would realise that he follows a pattern, which is he will reach out to only those who would feed the ego of this government. You are patriotic, nationalist & a good citizen as long as you support this government. The moment you criticize it, then you are termed anti-national, urban Naxal, Pakistani, Khalistani & the likes of it,” Kavitha Pandian, an NRI based in Richmond, Virginia, US, who is also the founder of Our Village Our Responsibility, an NGO in Tamil Nadu, tells Media India Group.

Though she was not named, but Meena Harris who is an American lawyer and children’s book author is the most recent target of the Twitter India trolls. Reacting to a tweet recently that called her out for ‘Hinduphobia’, after she tweeted that it was ‘time to talk about violent Hindu extremism’, Harris said she was a Hindu and that religion should not be used as a cover for fascism.

It’s not just Harris who has supported the farmers protest in India. Expressing solidarity with agitating Indian farmers, an alliance of various diaspora organisations has demanded the repeal of the three agricultural laws that have caused unrest in the country’s farming community.

Global Indian Progressive Alliance, which represents more than a dozen and a half diaspora organisations from across the world, demanded that the Indian government recognise the right to peaceful protest, and acknowledge the peaceful protests outside Delhi for the last 75 days and of prior farmer protests across the country.

India has called the remarks by foreign leaders and organisations on protests by farmers as “ill-informed” and “unwarranted”, asserting that the matter pertains to the internal affairs of a democratic country.

“We have seen some ill-informed comments…relating to farmers in India. Such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had said in December.

Seeking implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, representatives of these organisations during a virtual conference demanded the Indian government repeal the laws and submit bills to a parliamentary committee for review and stakeholder engagement as per prior parliamentary norms.

“Farmers were the only ones who were not pushed to the brink by the BJP government during this pandemic. While the whole world was struggling, our government decided to bring in the farm laws as ordinances without giving any opportunity for the elected members of parliament to debate. In September, the ordinances were introduced in the parliament with no parliamentary oversight, public consultation, violating the parliamentary norms and just a few days later, the bills are passed – no vote by clause, no debate, no divisions allowed and the Speaker just pushed the agenda of the government,” says Pandian.

The GIPA agrees with Pandian on the way the bills were pushed through the Parliament without any debate. “As progressive Indians, we are again disturbed to see the ramming through of laws without any attempt at consensus building. There has been no discussion with other political parties, citizen groups, affected stakeholders or academics in developing bills and passing them through Parliament, suppressing even the parliamentary debate process,” the alliance said.

By constantly raising the issue back home in their respective countries, the Indian diaspora members have created tremendous awareness about the ongoing protests, despite the attempts by the Indian government to brush them aside and keep the protests away from the media glare by barricading and almost prohibiting access to the protest sites.

Pandian says that she and other diaspora members have been in touch with various organisations on the ground in Delhi and have conducted many online activities such as Facebook lives, webinars and interviews to explain these farm laws to a larger population by inviting social activists, farmers, advocates from various parts of India to participate.

“These laws are detrimental to Indian farmers which led to the biggest global protest in the history. The fundamental pillar to any democracy is the right to peacefully assemble. Following the passage of the new farming legislation, millions of farmers and daily labourers from all parts of India peacefully expressed their opposition to the laws. Unfortunately, Indian law enforcement officers responded with brutality, including but not limited to water cannons, tear gas, baton attacks, barricades, and more,” Pandian says.

With the issue being talked about in the international media, foreign governments have been forced to comment on the situation in India, much to the chagrin of the Indian government. “The US administration has responded to the ongoing farmers protest, the US embassy in India has asked the Indian government to resolve through dialogue and so has the United Nations Human Rights,” says Pandian, highlighting the internationalisation of the issue.

The diaspora members say they were pleased that the issue of democracy being the bedrock of US-India relations was raised in the call between US President Joe Biden and Modi earlier this week. “As per the read out from the conversation between US President Joe Biden & PM Modi, the President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the U.S.-India relationship. And this statement speaks volume. We will continue to stand for our farmers,’’ says Pandian.

The diaspora, notably the Sikh diaspora in UK, Canada and the US are particularly upset that members of the Modi government and many other supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party referred to the protestors and their sympathisers as Khalistanis.

With no end to the protest in sight yet and instead, a hardening of government’s stance, indicates that the distance between Delhi and diaspora is set to increase further as more voices are likely be raised by the pariahs who were once patriots.

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