July 17, 2023The IntersectionInformation Ageforeign policy

Diaspora politics is going to get even more complicated

The risks of engaging overseas Indian communities are growing as a result of new trends in migration, demographics and technology

Mint This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Diaspora politics is going to get a lot more complicated and recent turbulence is an indicator of the policy challenges ahead.

Pro-Khalistan protests in the US, UK, Canada and Australia have descended into vandalism, arson, rioting, incitement to assassination and inter-group violence. Last year, there was Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Leicester. Hindu and Sikh communities got into fights in Australia. A parade in New Jersey featured a bulldozer celebrating Yogi Adityanath’s politics, attracting condemnation for its provocativeness and causing the Indian business association to issue an apology. Google and Big Tech companies in the US attracted criticism on being seen as insensitive to caste discrimination. This year, the Seattle City Council outlawed caste discrimination in response to advocacy by diaspora civil society groups. In May, a 19-year-old Indian-American crashed a truck near the White House, waved a Nazi flag, and declared that he wanted to kill the president, seize power and put an end to democracy in the US. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US last month, some civil society groups came together to celebrate him while others mobilised in protest.

These are merely some manifestations of new churnings in diaspora politics and the re-intensification of older ones. Together with other trends, they suggest that Indian politics and foreign policy must recalibrate their approach towards diaspora engagement. Over the past three months, in addition to the Prime Minister, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin have been abroad courting the diaspora in a pattern that has become familiar over the past 25 years: attract investment, build support in foreign capitals and canvas for politics back home. Future itineraries will have to be different.

The rate of emigration in the past two decades has created a large stock of new Indian immigrants in many countries. Recent immigrants are more likely to be engaged with the politics of their home countries. The internet, social media and accessibility of air travel all enable them engage in Indian politics abroad while being less concerned about local sensitivities. This is creating tensions with older immigrants who are concerned that hard-won social equations with local societies will be upset. It is also creating tensions with the second- and third-generation members of the diaspora, who often have very different political and ideological outlooks. These distinctions are over and above the traditional linguistic, regional and partisan lines that have long distinguished our diasporic communities. As their size increases, so will divisions and polarisation. Community leaders in Australia, Singapore and the US told me that political leaders, celebrities and government policy should be careful not to exacerbate the situation.

In fact, Indian leaders should take extra care not to conflate Indian origin with loyalty to India, or to religious or ethnic sectarianism. An important reason Indian immigrants have done well in politics, culture and business overseas is that they have always been—and been seen—as bona fide members of the local political community, with no divided or extra-territorial loyalties. Ethnic Indians have served as heads of state, commanded military forces and occupied sensitive positions in security establishments in a number of countries. As the number of Indian-origin leaders, civil servants and corporate executives rises, they should not be under pressure for their dealings with India as unspoken loyalty tests. Essentially, Indian leaders—and especially the media—would do well to treat Rishi Sunak, Kamala Harris, Harjit Sajjan, Antonio Costa and Leo Varadkar as they would if they had happened to be of any other ethnicity.

One of the more serious risks arises from the global phenomenon of internet-driven political polarisation and radicalisation. This means politics in one geography could be destabilised by people residing in another who do not bear the consequences of their actions. Khalistan and Kashmiri separatists are an example of this. What has long been the bane of diaspora politics has transmogrified in the Information Age. Because of the complex manner in which issues, people, grievances and triggers are enmeshed, there is a possibility that risks can come in new forms. For instance, until it happened, it was unimaginable that an Indian-origin teenager in the US would attack the White House on a fascist manifesto.

My 2010 essay: civil society groups, not the Indian government, ought to take up issues of human rights, justice and stand in solidarity with overseas Indian communities.

This is the decade when Indian political, cultural and social battles will no longer be confined to India, but will travel wherever Indians are. In some areas, the Indian way—of pluralism, tolerance and moderation—will serve as a model for the countries where Indians live. In other areas, society in India will have to deal with uncomfortable challenges to what it considers its internal affairs. The Indian government will be on safe ground to the extent that it limits its concerns to Indian citizens and their interests abroad, not anyone who has some Indian genes in their cells. Political leaders and civil society groups might want to paint on a larger canvas, but they must stay aware of the risks they are running.

The column and this post were first published on 2023-07-16

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