Diasporas of India

The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture. If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora does not exist in the singular either. There is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement and migration that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s, when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean. Recent reports mention the emotional visit of the prime minister of Mauritius to the Bihar village from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the British empire. Over a decade ago, there were similar reports about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the prime minister of Trinidad.

In India's metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad. When the designation NRI first came about, around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration that for many people, NRI only meant Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut. It is said that more than 25 per cent of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers and doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place in their respective professions. This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself. Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversation in middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.

Even in the US, the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students and later, Ghadrites, who made their way to the US in the late-1890s and the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the US was prohibited in 1924. Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US after the immigration reforms of 1965: notwithstanding the common impression that they are affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin' Donuts franchises around the country and have a huge hand in the motel business. In California's Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country's greatest agricultural hubs, 14 per cent of them, according to a 2005 report, lived below the poverty level, 35 per cent did not even have a high school diploma.

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