India has an old history of inland migration. The Indian diaspora formation began during the colonial times to fulfil the colonial requirement of cheap labour after the abolition of slavery in 1833. Indians migrated under the colonial rule as indentured labourers to many countries around the world like Mauritius, Guyana, Fiji, and Trinidad, South Africa and to various countries of Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia. But the post World War II period saw the migration of skilled Indian labourers and professionals from India to various countries of the world. The destination of the post WWII migration was the developed West and was largely voluntary. Thus, there remains a clear class division among the Indian diaspora – the indentured migrants (coolie diaspora) and the voluntary migrants (new diaspora / dollar diaspora).
Though India prior to her independence was sympathetic to the cause of her diaspora, chose to disassociate herself from the diaspora after independence. India found no specific utility of the diaspora. Elsewhere in the world diaspora had come to play an important role in nation-building. The creation of Israel by the Jewish diaspora is the most exalted example. The combination of collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War of the early 1990, created a balance of payment crisis to such an extent that India had to mortgage gold in British bank to manage the crisis. It is noteworthy that the dollar diaspora did not respond enthusiastically to the call to bailout India with their idle cash and the Indian government learnt about the need to engage the diaspora meaningfully. A committee was formed under L.M Singvi to recommend ways of engaging the diaspora.
The Diaspora policy of government of India was influenced by the economic problems faced by the country. The government acknowledged the contribution of Indian Diaspora in solving the foreign exchange crisis. Changing profile of the diaspora, increased in its numbers, adoption of the policy of economic liberalization, globalisation and the end of cold war led to a re-evaluation of the diaspora policy. The NDA government in 1998 initiated several policy measures in its foreign policy to engage with the Indian diaspora. The Indian Diaspora is now considered as an asset. Indian settlers in other parts of the world are considered as ‘brand ambassador of India’ promoting goodwill for India and represented ‘mini India’ Many policy initiatives like celebration of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), PIO card, investment opportunities etc. are introduced for Indian diaspora. The importance of Indian Diaspora in the Foreign Policy of India is very much visible today through change in the Governments’ earlier policy of disassociation to active association. The Government of India wants to engage with its diaspora as actively as possible. Indian diaspora is now being considered to be the vectors of India’s both hard and soft power.
In the age of globalisation, the 25 million strong Indian diaspora has come to be regarded as an important asset. In spite of such engagement one can see that the asset rich diaspora or the dollar rich Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) seem to be the favoured section of the diaspora. We believe that if India wishes to harness the strength of her diaspora, it must have a policy that is sensitive to all sections of her diaspora starting from the indentured labourers to the recently migrated NRIs.