Evolution of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas
A New Engagement With Diaspora
As the latest edition of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas gets underway in Varanasi, a look back at
how the government’s engagement with the diaspora has evolved over the years since the
first PBD was held in 2003.
Dr V P Nair, a cardiologist in a leading hospital in Singapore, has attended every Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) right since its inception in 2003. Fifteen years and 14 PBDs later, he is nostalgic about his first experience when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hosted the first ever gathering of the Indian diaspora. “The first PBD was held in the year 2003 in New Delhi, when about 1,000 delegates attended the event. We did have some minor teething problems. My most lasting memory from the first PBD was the opportunity to meet the most popular Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the people’s President, the Missile Man, A P J Abdul Kalam,” he remembers.
The Singaporean cardiologist is relatively one of the few Person of Indian Origin (PIO), who has made it a point to attend each PBD, saying the occasion allows him and other PIOs to keep their connect with India and the Indian administration and also allows them to raise the issues that they may be facing in their home nations, including at times dealing with the local governments.
Nair is also active in the community affairs locally in Singapore and he is been an office bearer of the Global Organisation of Persons of Indian Origin (GOPIO), an umbrella organisation of Indian diaspora around the world.
The GOPIO International’s Chairman Mahen Utchanah, a former minister in the Mauritian government, is also a regular feature at PBDs. Utchanah has proactively championed the issues of the Indian diaspora, notably in the countries where Indian indentured labour was taken by the British and French colonial powers to work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery nearly two centuries ago. Nearly three million Indians were taken as workers, often on false promises of comfortable lives and possibility of return if they were unhappy on the new lands. Indians were taken to several countries, like Fiji and Malaysia in the East, Mauritius and the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, South Africa and the Caribbean in the West.
Building a network
Over the last decade and a half, since the first PBD was held, the nature and the content of the event has evolved to a large extent. For over 12 years, the PBD was an annual feature that travelled all over the country, with different cities hosting the diaspora mela. Its main appeal lay in giving a unique opportunity to the diaspora to meet and mingle with the leadership of the country, as the inaugural speech at the PBD was made by the Prime Minister and valedictory speech by the President of the country.
Also in attendance have been key central ministers and chief ministers of several states, permitting the diaspora to interact and mingle with the who’s who of Indian government and policymakers.
The objective of the event has been two-fold. One is to allow the diaspora members and associations raise their issues with the Indian government on a variety of topics, ranging from protecting their property and land rights to getting access to schemes like the Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) that grants lifelong visa-free access to India for PIOs.
For the Indian government, it also presents a unique opportunity to get the diaspora, especially its well-to-do and politically-connected members, to take a more proactive interest in India’s development as well as showcase investment opportunities through special Non Resident Indian (NRI) financial instruments such as dedicated bonds. It is also an occasion for the Indian government to recognise and honour key achievers amongst the diaspora community through the Pravasi Samman awards that have been bagged by heads of the government or state from various diaspora nations as well as leading scientists, business persons or academicians.
The PBD programmes are embellished with cultural and culinary extravaganzas as the government hosts some of the most notable artists from across the country in high-profile cultural evenings, accompanied by lavish lunches and dinners.
Utchanah says the PBD has been a very useful platform for him and his organisation to bring key issues that the descendents of the diaspora face in the various countries that they live in. “For many years, the Indian government’s perception of the Indian diaspora had revolved around the rich and powerful communities in the US, the UK, and Canada, which are mainly people who migrated there after the independence.
The government was not really aware of the much larger diaspora population, which lives in the PIO countries, all those nations where the Indian indentured labour was taken, often forcibly, as was the case with Mauritius,’’ says Utchanah.
Since 2003, Utchanah has taken up cudgels on behalf of the diaspora in these nations, trying to first bring together the diaspora not only at a national level, but at an international level. He has overseen the expansion of GOPIO to more than two-dozen nations, including several African nations as well as the islands in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Utchanah adds that he uses the platform offered by PBD to create a network and common meeting ground for members of Indian diaspora from all over the world, notably by organising a meeting of representatives from all around the world, on the sidelines of the main PBD.
For many years, the format of the gathering remained the same and at least initially it served the purpose or say the diaspora members. “I was able to interact with some chief ministers and central ministers, including the Prime Minister and the President of India. Also, I was able to meet many film actors. In the initial years, at least, top ministers of Singapore government as well as business leaders and representatives of Chambers of Commerce also used to attend the PBD,’’ recounts Nair.
Over the years, the government also began holding regional PBDs, held in various parts of the world at least once a year, in order to allow a greater focus on the diaspora members in that region as well as make it easier for a larger number of people to attend these meetings, thus making the engagement more frequent and meaningful.
Since the parliamentary elections and installation of the Narendra Modi government in May 2014, PBD has undergone a major transformation, as has the overall engagement of the Indian government with the diaspora. Now, the engagement is extremely public and of course more intense and frequent. Witness the massive gatherings of diaspora by Prime Minister Modi in practically all his overseas visits, including the famous rock-concert star reception that he received at the Madison Square Garden in New York, on his first trip to the United States in September 2014, barely months after he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. Since then, large-scale and extremely high-profile meetings with the diaspora community have become a regular feature on all the 60-odd overseas visits that Modi has made so far.
The government has also made social media as the primary channel of communication and outreach to the diaspora, with the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, responding to the requests for help by diaspora members or Indian nationals visiting any country around the world. Through her proactive approach as well as seemingly round the clock availability, Swaraj has helped thousands of Indians and diaspora members caught up in difficult situations overseas and ensured provision of prompt assistance to them, ranging from arranging for urgent passports or visas to providing urgent medical assistance, mainly to the Indian workers employed in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Another major development was the merger of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the ministry specially created to handle diaspora issues, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). To many diaspora members, it was rather surprising that a diaspora-friendly government would do away with a dedicated ministry and their main point of contact in India. They feared that as diaspora was only one of the several issues handled by the MEA, they would not get adequate attention from the ministry or indeed the embassies of India around the world. However, these fears have been removed by the proactive engagement shown by the ministry, egged on, no doubt, by Swaraj herself.
And from 2015 onwards, it has also changed entirely the format and content of the PBD gathering. The first big change was to make it a bi-annual feature instead of an annual meeting. It also began using technology and replaced the regional PBDs with a monthly video-PBD, which centred on a particular issue, notably the challenges that India faces and where the diaspora members could provide help such as waste management, promoting new technologies like AI or even delivering healthcare through new means.
“Since the participants in these gatherings are chosen with great care and are domain experts, the findings of these meetings are very useful, not only for the government to tweak its policy for promoting the particular sector’s development in the country or finding the best-practices from around the world to bring them in India,’’ says a senior official of the MEA, the ministry that now handles the diaspora issues and is the main organiser of the PBD gatherings.
The recommendations of these meetings form the main content of the PBD now and the entire programme is built around these issues, although the key elements such as speeches by the PM and the President remain intact. The new format seems to work with at least some of the diaspora members. ‘‘I would think that an annual PBD is better, but perhaps the biannual format is more convenient for overseas delegates. Of course it is also less of a financial burden to the delegates,’’ says Nair. However, some others feel that a biannual gathering does make the connect with the government and with the event more challenging.
The Language divide
Not everyone is happy about the PBD or about the engagement by the government. “I must say that the Francophone Indian diaspora doesn’t have that much to say during the PBD. We were expecting more. This feeling is not only mine but it is also Frenchspeaking PIOs. For instance, when Mahen Utchanah requested a French live translation, it lasted only for one year, not more! Moreover, regarding PIO/OCI cards, the same issues remain. By the way, our members are often questioning the necessity to come to the PBD,’’ says Jean Regis Ramsamy, a television journalist and an office bearer of GOPIO, who lives in the Reunion Island, a French colony in the Indian Ocean.
Ramasamy’s thoughts are frequently repeated by other diaspora members, especially the Francophone members as they remained cut off from the land of their ancestors for nearly two centuries when they were brought as indentured labour to work on plantations in various countries around the world. The Francophone diaspora members say that the government’s focus so far has been either towards the rich and powerful communities in the US, the UK or Canada or towards the nine millionodd workers in the GCC nations, leaving the Francophone diaspora, numbering nearly a million out in the cold, primarily due to the language barrier, which makes even basic communication between the government and the diaspora a challenge. The diaspora also complains that most of the schemes as well as initiatives of the government remain targeted on the communities in the GCC or the rich diaspora members in Anglophone nations.
‘‘Let’s take the case of Reunion Island. Mahesh Sharma, minster of culture, visited the island in 2014, and about our request to have an Indian cultural centre, we have come to understand that the government doesn’t have any solution for us. With a helpful manner we have been willing to take more part of cultural relationships between France and India. Except the visas being issued and the tourism, we don’t notice any major change. However, we were really concerned by Modi’s speech over issues of economics. Of course, it would have been small things but we don’t really feel India’s will in favour of French PIO,’’ adds Ramsamy.
‘‘During one of the earlier PBDs, I had spoken about PIOs in the Reunion Island being a forgotten diaspora and this statement is still true. Yet, we do have the means to be acknowledged as Indian ambassadors. Indeed, if we have 300 associations it is because we are not losing hope to see this challenge becoming a reality,’’ he adds.
Despite the challenges, diaspora communities are expected to turn out in large numbers in January 2019 to attend what would be the last PBD to be held by the current government before the general elections, slated for April this year. To attract the largest number, the government has significantly altered the PBD dates as well, moving it away from January 9, the day Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, as the inaugural day of the event. In 2019, the PBD is being held to coincide with the Republic Day as the Ardh Maha Kumbh that is taking place on the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in Allahabad, recently renamed as Prayagraj.
‘‘I am glad to know that this year it is being held in Varanasi. I went to Varanasi alone for the first time when I was only 18 years old. The trip to Kumbha mela and the Republic Day in India during the PBD should bring proud moments to all Indians,’’ affirms Nair.
Besides giving the diaspora a glimpse of the holy city of Varanasi, a dip in the Ganga during the Kumbha mela and a privileged access to the Republic Day parade, the government also hopes to have another gift for them – the right to vote in Indian elections, for those who retain Indian passports. The government is believed to be working in a fast-track mode to facilitate this, with a hope to harvest a large majority of several million votes in the upcoming elections. That’s a trick that may indeed deliver!