From Labourers to IT Professionals

The Indian Diaspora

FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is today the new ‘mantra’ that governments swear by in order to promote development and thus revamp the economy. Narendra Modi is inviting foreign firms to invest in many sectors of the Indian economy as he realizes that without massive inputs he will not be able to fulfill his electoral promises to the people. We however forget that the Indian diaspora has in the past been a powerful form of FDI to spur the economic development of many countries. But this kind of FDI was and still is in the form of Human Resources instead of Financial Resources as we understand it today.

When Modi was in the USA recently he addressed a huge crowd of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin) at the Madison Square Gardens in New York. Sharing his experience in Taiwan, the former Gujarat chief minister said when he had visited the Asian country many years ago, he was given an interpreter. “For the first five-six days, he was stiff, maintained protocol but then he opened up and asked me ‘does black magic still exist in India or are there still snake charmers?’”

“I told the interpreter that we’ve had a devaluation. We used to play with snakes, now we play with the mouse. When we move a mouse, the whole world moves,” said Modi. There was a thunderous applause at this witty — but to the point — reply. It underlines the transformation that the Indian diaspora has undergone over the ages.

Labourers were imported from India in the 19th century to work in the sugar cane fields of Mauritius, and this is how sugar cane became the backbone of our economy. They worked in abject conditions but saved their meagre allowances to provide for a better future for their children through education. This is a story that was replicated in many other countries — Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guyana, Surinam, Malaysia, Singapore, South and East Africa and other places. But their strengths came from the cultures, religions and languages they brought with them and kept alive, and which they transmitted to the next generations to provide them with an anchor in largely hostile environments.

This is where Chit Dukhira’s book: ‘Indians in India, Mauritius and South Africa’ is a welcome work of reference to become acquainted with most of the leaders who stood up — each in his/her way — for the progress of Indians who were forced by circumstances to make their home in different parts of the world but without forgetting their origin. Chit Dukhira has spent a lot of time researching about the life of these leaders in India, South Africa and Mauritius, and writing about the contribution of each of them to the development of their country of adoption. He has done a great job and deserves our gratitude for what he has done tirelessly.

Of course there may still be some names and some information which have been missed out, but who can produce such a comprehensive work in one book in such a concise manner? Fortunately he has not taken upon himself to include the Indian diaspora that went to other parts of the world, which would perhaps have taken him another decade.

The labourers who travelled by boat to far away places developed a genuine friendship for one another. They called themselves ‘jahaji bhai’ (brothers in the same boat) when they reached their destination. Along with the labourers some skilled workers and businessmen, particularly merchants, also made their way to where Indians were settling down and provided them with the amenities they would have otherwise missed.

I remember that on 12 December 1943 when Basdeo Bissoondoyal made his historic clarion call to the descendants of Indians to gather in Port Louis for a Maha Yaj, tens of thousands came in spite of the fact that the British authorities had cancelled the running of trains, the only means of public transport then. They travelled from far away villages on foot, on bicycle, on bullock carts and lorries to defy the might of the British, and this too during the Second World War. There was no free transport and biryani to lure them on that occasion. They only wanted their dignity to be respected.

But there would have been chaos without a loudspeaker system. The authorities had approached Dawood Patel, the only person of Indian origin to have a loudspeaker system, and asked him not to provide it on that occasion. Dawood Patel, at the peril of losing out in this David-versus-Goliath battle, refused. The event was a resounding success and paved the way for the emergence of an Indian-dominated Legislative Council in 1948, following a general election based on an almost universal suffrage: the ability to write one’s name in a language spoken in Mauritius.

Coming back to Narendra Modi’s point about ‘playing’ with a ‘mouse’, the image of Indian immigrants in the USA has undergone a rapid transformation. The brilliant graduates from India, particularly from the IITs and IIMs, were snatched up by multinationals even before they completed their studies and made their way into all professional sectors there. The American IT sector benefited most from this FDI in human resources, and would close down without this investment from India. Today there are 3.5 million American Indians, with 1.5 million more studying or waiting to become Permanent Residents.

But what kept the diaspora together in far away lands in spite of the diversity that still exists in India? There are four main elements to focus on in order to find an answer: adherence to tradition, dedication to hard work, a culture of savings and a thirst for education. An element of openness to adaptation is also necessary for survival and progress. But we will not find easy answers to many questions in today’s world because the new generations will have to respond to the pressures on them coming from the media and their peers in an environment of materialism, drugs, violence and sex. This is the challenge they will have to take in their stride in order to adapt to the demands of a fast-changing world environment without losing their equilibrium.

The poem ‘IF’ written by Rudyard Kipling, who lived in India for some time, is perhaps more relevant and appropriate today than it was more than a century ago when Kipling wrote it. If people all over the world are finding Hatha Yoga (the yoga of physical postures) and Pranayam (breathing exercises) as the answer to living in a world buffeted by pressures from all directions, will the descendants of Indians forget about these age-old remedies transmitted from generation to generation by their ancestors to give them genuine wellness without having to rely on anti-depressants and other harmful drugs?


* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014

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