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The Indian American Diaspora — How it contributes towards India

Upendra Choudhury

DURING the last few years, there has been a sudden augmentation in the role and importance of the overseas communities, popularly known as the Diaspora. They have emerged as a dynamic factor, shaping relations between `host' and `home' countries. The meteoric rise of the Indian-American community as an influential factor in the US is a case in point. They have changed India's image and steered the US Congress in a pro-Indian direction time and again.

There are two important reasons for the emergence of Indian-Americans as an influential community. According to the latest US Census Bureau Report, there are about 1.6 million Indians in the US or 0.6 per cent of the total American population. As the third largest Asian American group in the US after the Chinese and the Filipinos, the Indian diaspora has emerged as a significant vote bank in US electoral politics.

Second, the Indian-Americans have become enormously rich, thanks to the computer and Internet revolution. Due to their better financial position they have become major contributors to American political parties. This makes a huge difference in a country where money speaks.

Thus, Indians in the US are rapidly acquiring political clout commensurate with their financial wealth. They are now poised to play the same role for their country of birth as other immigrant groups such as the Jews played for theirs in the US. Not long ago, India was almost subjected to economic sanctions by the US Congress for perceived violations of civil rights in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. At one stage, New Delhi escaped by just three votes. But now the situation is different. In 1998, the Congress passed a legislation diluting the former US President, Mr Bill Clinton's sanctions imposed after India's nuclear tests.

Similarly in its 107th session the US Congress passed a resolution supporting a permanent seat for India in the UN.

During the Kargil conflict, Indian immigrants flooded Congress office with e-mails urging speedy resolution of the conflict. Ultimately, the law-makers complied and a few days later, in a White House meeting, Mr Clinton cited Congressional pressure as one of the reasons in urging Mr Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces. In a more recent event, Ms Shirin Tahir-Kheli was considered as a front runner to succeed Mr Karl Inderfurth as the New Assistant Secretary for South Asia. The Assistant Secretary for South Asia is a key figure in steering the US's policy approach to the region. But some members of the Indian-American Community launched an email-blitz to voice their concern at Ms Tahir-Kheli's close Pakistani connections. Finally, Ms Christina Rocca was appointed the Assistant Secretary for South Asia and Ms Kheli, the Head of the US delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Indian Americans are also influencing international public opinion. For instance, during the Fiji crisis, they in one voice, demanded the restoration of the Mohinder Chaudhary Government in Suva. Similarly, the Indian diaspora along with the American Jews recently protested outside the UN against the treatment of Hindus in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

As their political and economic clout expands, the media is beginning to pay attention. The Washington Post (October 9, 1999) covered the Indian American community's emergence as a powerful lobbying group in Capitol Hill. Besides tilting foreign policy towards India, the community is now playing the same role in the economic transformation of India that the Chinese diaspora played in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

Between 1990 and 2000 remittances from abroad have grown six-fold, from $2.1 billion to $12.3 billion. This growth far exceeds the growth in India's exports. The destinations for the remittances have shifted significantly from Kerala and Gujarat to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Like the overseas Chinese entrepreneur, who has changed the face of the Chinese economy through FDI (Foreign Direct Investments), the overseas Indian is also waiting for the Indian window to open for him.

Under the Resurgent India Bond Scheme, the NRIs pumped in $4 billion into India in a matter of days. A few successful Indian Americans are sending home a portion of their fortune as investment. A group of five Indian Americans has proposed to collect $1 billion to set up a series of private research institutes in India, to be called Global Institute of Science and Technology. NRIs have also been in the forefront championing various social and environmental causes in India. For instance, during the earthquake in Gujarat, NRIs under the banner of American India Foundation, quickly mobilised $60 million and collaborated with private relief agencies on a scale not previously observed. It was on the strength of the Indian Diaspora that Mr Bill Clinton was able to announce his intention to raise tens of millions of dollars for the victims and paid a visit to Gujarat in March 2001.

To tap the energy and resources of the Indian diaspora more effectively, the Government should formulate a credible policy for the NRIs and solve their problems. Corruption is a major issue. Whenever an NRI seeks Customs clearance, he/she is invariably pressured to pay bribes. There have been cases when NRI passengers were made to miss their flight because of callous officials.

Indian-Americans also complain how difficult it is to donate money to worthwhile causes in India. The Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) makes donations a nightmare of paper-work and corruption.

India should also consider permitting dual citizenship for Indians going abroad. Proposals to do so in the past have floundered for security reasons. Almost any reasonable guideline would entitle people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries to claim Indian citizenship. Moreover, dual citizenship could become a pretext to deny Indians a share in power in their host countries. The simple solution could be to offer dual citizenship only to a selected number of countries, starting with the US.

Deeper engagement and coordination with Indo-American support groups is critical. Though Indo-American groups will not solely be concerned with Indian issues, a communication framework that exploits the strategic potential of the diaspora must be devised. Assisting coalition-building between (dispersed) networks is also vital if energies are to be channelled in a productive direction.

(The author teaches in the Post-Graduate Department of Political Science, Dyal Singh College, Karnal, Haryana.)

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