Updated: November 23, 2010 11:37 IST

Study on Indian diaspora

Debdas Banerjee
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There are a few commendable compilations of data by some agencies such as the ILO and the UNDP on the cross-border flows of labour. The consequences of migrants' remittances for the recipient-countries have also been studied earlier with special reference to Kerala in the 1970s and the 1980s. In general, migrants' remittances have systemic effects on the balance of payments. Allowing a much wider trade deficit than otherwise possible does stabilise the rupee exchange rate (as opposed to international ‘hot money' in the stock market), thereby giving the Reserve Bank of India a freer hand in formulating monetary policy.

The migration of less-skilled labour (especially to West Asia) has also helped in bringing down disguised unemployment in India. In the case of highly skilled labour, however, the consequences are a mixed bag. On the positive side, as the author says, since the skilled migrants were mainly drawn from the upper castes, their exit bolstered political stability. Their success overseas has boosted India's image abroad. By weaving a web of cross-national networks, the migrant workers facilitated the flow of tacit information, commercial and business ideas, and technologies into India. On the seamy side, of course, there is a substantial drop in the supply of professionals for running institutions and organisations in India. As a result, there is eventually an erosion of professional standards, and the higher education system itself suffers very badly. However, the trans-border movement of people may well be an important lever of ‘soft power' — for the source country and/or the destination country. In fact, travellers and sojourners of various types — pilgrims, explorers, diplomats, merchants, students, and exiles — have long been agents in the transmission of ideas.


Based on a primary survey of Indian and Asian Indian migrants in the United States, the book examines questions such as: How do diasporas shape national identity? What are the effects of long-distance nationalism? Do diasporas amplify or attenuate cleavages in the country of origin? Or, do they create conditions that provide a countervailing force to nationalism, as is the case with the extensive cross-border business investments that the Chinese diaspora has been constructing throughout Asia and increasingly in other regions of the world? Its focus is on Indian diaspora, the core message being this: International migration and diasporas transform the political economy of sending countries.

For a country of India's size, where international migration is a very small fraction of the resident population, direct or indirect participation of non-residents in elections is unlikely to make much difference. Yet, States such as Gujarat, Kerala, and Punjab where international migration is relatively larger, might be the outliers. Even in these cases, the effects are more influential at the local level, and their systemic impact is unlikely to be substantial, the author admits though. Thus, the most significant direct political impact of the Indian diaspora on the home country is likely to be its engagement in ‘long-distance nationalism'.

Many scholars have contended that the Indian diaspora has financed Hindu nationalism and, by implication, the anti-Muslim violence often instigated by the communalist elements. The argument runs on these lines: the Indian diaspora is largely pro-Hindutva and so finances the Sangh Parivar back home; these resources empowered the latter which, in turn, used them to run a violent campaign against religious minorities, principally Muslims.

Based on the survey data, Devesh Kapur argues that the impression, built up by many analysts, that the diaspora has proclivities for fomenting communal violence in India appears to be exaggerated. In the 2000s, even as the diaspora grew in numbers and wealth, the power of Hindu nationalist forces waned in India, which, he says, underscored the limitations of the Indian diaspora's presumed role as the force-multiplier of Hindu nationalism. How has international migration affected the political economy of India's development? In the concluding chapter, the author finds no easy answer. One cannot a priori posit that international migration is ‘good' or ‘bad' for a country. The outcomes depend heavily on the policies of the country of origin, which of course can (and do) change over time. This conclusion challenges the breathless invocations of international migration as portending a future of de-territorialised nations and transnationalism as an alternative modernity.

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