Global Indians and the Problem of a Singular National Identification

Indian Diaspora

Diasporic communities are marked by the constant renegotiation of their identities, pertaining to how they represent themselves in the hostland, correlated with how they are represented in their homeland. The identification of the Indian diaspora with a singular Indian identity is ridden with complexities. Furthermore, given the translocal and transnational articulation of community identities in the age of globalisation, the diasporic communities are no longer bound by territorial identification with the home or the host alone. To understand the narrative of nationalism that India perpetuates with regard to its diasporic communities vis-a-vis their self-identifications, a brief glimpse of the conditions at home (in India) must be taken into account, in the context of the postcolonial diaspora.

The response of the Indian government towards its diasporic community has been that of a complex kind. At the time of Indian independence, the attitude towards its diasporic communities was rather territorial and unwelcoming. The Nehruvian government’s policy towards the Indian diaspora was that of categorically relegating them to those, who left the country and now, have been forgotten by the nation. It is also germane to take into account that strong territorial emotions attached to nation and nationalism was a marked feature of the new, postcolonial world. Therefore, India’s stand with regard to Indian communities abroad was based on such a narrative, where they were characterised as the lost children of India, and their inherent Indian links were of no value to the newly formed Indian nation-state. However, this narrative gradually changed during the regime of Rajiv Gandhi and was evidently marked by India’s economic needs, in the aftermath of emigration in the‘60s and ‘70s. As Pande observes, due to the increasing requirement of diasporic expertise in the development of the Information Technology sector in India, diaspora remittances being channelised in the community pockets and the need for centrally located investments led to a systemic re-recognition of the Indian diaspora. As Mani and Varadarajan note, “On 9 January 2003, more than 2,000 people from around the world arrived in New Delhi to participate in an event that was touted as the “largest gathering of the global Indian family.”…superimposed with the slogan “Welcome Back, Welcome Home”.

This event marked a dramatic shift in the Indian narrative towards its diasporic communities. The rhetoric that followed was that of strong ties of the diaspora with its motherland. Mani and Varadarajan further note, “[The Pravasi Divas] consolidated categories in order to produce a single history of cultural, economic, and political affiliation to India… the Pravasi Bharatiya—was recruited into the national body of the postcolonial state.”

The Pravasi Divas undermined the heterogeneities in the identities of the diaspora, tying it in the single thread of an ‘Indian’ identity. The cultural markers through which the diaspora articulates itself (cultural, religious, etc.) were strategically smoothened out to promote the idea of global Indians. The problem with such a narrative is that it tends to cater to the political ambitions of the homeland, undermining the cultural differences in the Indian diaspora  especially when the dominant rhetoric of ‘Hinduness’, associated with ‘Indianness’ remains intact at home. Furthermore, an event like Pravasi Divas, though in speech and theory, tends to recognise the subaltern workforce in the diaspora, only caters to the interests of the capitalist diaspora, worthy of economic investments in the country, and influential to shape home-host relations.

Amba Pande in the context of Indian diaspora, writes, “the mosaic of Indian identities abroad presents a complex picture which makes it difficult for policymakers and researchers to approach the diaspora as a single entity.” If the very idea of diasporic identities and diaspora’s homeland is considered in the context of India, which operates through a complex web of heterogeneous identities, the diasporic ideas of the imaginary homeland will also be myriad. If one considers the context of Indianness and Indian identity as which is articulated under the dominant rhetoric of Hinduness, the Hindus in the diaspora will then, have a racialised, puritan idea of their homeland which is India. As Mishra observes that the imaginary idea of homeland that the diaspora constructs is a utopian one, to renegotiate with the trauma associated with their reality of displacement. “Racist narratives of homelands are therefore part of the dynamics of diasporas, as imaginary homelands are constructed from the space of distance to compensate for a loss occasioned by an unspeakable trauma”. Therefore, their ideation of the homeland will tend to other the non-Hindu communities of India in the diaspora. The Muslims, the Sikhs (or the lower castes for that matter) will therefore, have a different imagination of their homeland which will not be in tandem with the reality of their homeland. Amit S. Rai’s work, in the context of Indian diaspora, observes the creation of a new public sphere which the diaspora occupies, through which the articulation of conservative politics in the homeland finds platform (read: Howdy Modi in the United States) and secularism mainly remains in the periphery to appease the minorities.

In the context of the post 9/11 world order and the growing communal and security narrative in the homeland (India), the non-Hindus, especially the Indian Muslims in the diaspora may find it increasingly difficult to associate themselves with the idea of Indianness, the very politics at home which is used to other them and which is carried forward by the Indians in the diaspora. The articulation of their identities, in such a circumstance, will invariably fetch a religious, cultural tone and their idea of territorial homeland will be renegotiated accordingly. Anandini Dar’s fascinating research on South Asian children and youth in the diaspora in the US reveals how these children reside in a space of liminality with regard to their homeland identity. In a casual conversation with an Indian Muslim boy, it is observed that how when faced with the question of which country he is originally from, he answers that he is from Pakistan, and says that it is easy because people understand that rather than saying that he is from India and a Muslim, which, according to him, is complex to explain to the Americans. This naive conversation not only shows how the idea of a territorial motherland assumes a backseat in the articulation of diasporic identities, it also reveals how the politics at home not only shapes the diasporic identities but also the perceptions about them and their identifications in the hostland; India, associated with Hindus and Pakistan associated with Muslims. These undermine the very narratives of a diverse, secular India. Moreover, the articulation of community identities is found in every aspect of the daily mundanities of the diasporic communities, ranging from their attires to their culinary habits, which is bereft of and extremely distant from the idea of a singular, homogeneous ‘Indian’ in the diaspora. The diasporic politics in the hostland and their attitude towards the politics at home might also be contradictory in nature. As Mishra observes, the Indian upper caste Hindus who are minority in the US will lobby for affirmative actions whereas supporting bigotry politics at home. Instances of racist episodes in the US find overwhelming responses from the Indians (who are also people of colour and face racism), but in most cases, the same groups tend to have a contradictory stance on systemic social and political exclusions of say, Dalits or Muslims in India, instances of which are even more rampant in the pandemic, in the face of a collapse of the healthcare system.

The questions of identity and its articulation are complex processes. There exist cultural as well as political markers of identity. However, what becomes a further complicated process for the South Asian diaspora is the fact that cultural markers are deeply intertwined and enmeshed in the political (read: national) identities, for example, Tamils associated with India and Sri Lanka, Muslims associated with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bengalis associated with India and Bangladesh and so forth, and there are no detached or categorical divisions of these sets. They might choose to articulate themselves through various markers like language, ethnicity, culture, religion etc. In such a situation, the ‘Indian’ (based on a homogenous national) in the diaspora becomes problematic and contestable. It only becomes a matter of circumstance through which marker of identity the diaspora chooses to articulate itself, which is also shaped by the politics in the territorial homeland.

Aindrila Chakraborty, M.A Global Studies , School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University, Delhi



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