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The Great Indian Diaspora – A Preface

By Francis C. Assisi

“I choose the word ‘diaspora’ for the transplantation of my community from India during the second half of the nineteenth century, because it carries psychological connotations of deep sorrow and suffering, inconsolable mourning along with everlasting feeling of being torn inside. It conveys a mixture of emotions which are not present in the more traditional word, emigration, commonly used to designate those who, individually or in great waves, choose and decide at one particular time to leave their homeland for new skies that they believe to be more clement and welcoming”. Lotus Vingadassamy-Engel, from the West Indies, in a lecture delivered at the India International Centre, 1991.

“To study a banyan tree, you not only must know its main stem in its own soil, but also must trace the growth of its greatness in the further soil, for then you can know the true nature of its vitality. The civilization of India, like the banyan tree, has shed its beneficent shade away from its own birthplace. . . . India can live and grow by spreading abroad - not the political India, but the ideal India.” Rabindranath Tagore commenting on the Indian diaspora in a letter to his friend C.F.Andrews, 1921.

In the countries to which they have settled, the People of Indian Origin have done remarkably well, even though their links with India may be shattered or at least frayed.

Among them are billionaires, Nobel prizewinners in science and literature, poets, politicians, feminist scholars, post-modern intellectuals, leading figures in computer science, researchers on the cutting edge of emerging technologies, respected educators, hardworking nurses and doctors.

Even the literary and art productions of India’s diasporic communities represent both a celebration and an incisive critique of the different cultural spaces they inhabit. All this has been publicized widely and in good measure in the diasporic media.

Everywhere, they have also been enslaved, abused, harassed and victimized. It continues to this day – in Trinidad, in Fiji, in East Africa, in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in the Gulf countries, in Britain, in Canada, in the United States and elsewhere.

And this will be their story.

Whether it is the story of the solitary Indian living in the Cape Verde islands off the African coast (in the Canary Islands), or the people of Indian origin forcibly removed from the Indian ocean island of Diego Garcia to make way for American B-52s, or the nearly 3 million settled in North America, or the nearly 20 million scattered in other countries in the world, we shall attempt to unravel their truth as well as the myth in the saga of the great Indian diaspora.

In doing so, we shall look at the moghuls as well as the paupers, the intellectuals as well as the cyber-coolies, the artist as well as the entrepreneur, doctors as well as nurses, educators as well as sexual predators, the nobel-class scientist as well as the scientist who is doomed to slog forever as a research fellow, the hip-hop artist as well as the diasporic dance teacher…

We shall unravel hate crimes against people of Indian origin, as well as criminal tendencies among Indians living abroad, including spouse abuse. We shall explore why the health of Indians living in the developed world is cause for concern. We shall explore the good, along with the bad and the ugly.

It’s going to be a broad canvas.

In parts of the world, the People of Indian Origin continue struggling to redefine their place in an environment that for most part remains hostile towards them. And this too after more than 150 years during which they lost much, but managed to preserve what was essential: their Indianness.

In the Caribbean, for instance, says Vingadassamy, “The blacks reproach us the very last drop of Indian blood still running in our veins, while on our side we claim that very last drop as a birthright”. The fact is, as Vingadassamy explains, “In the eyes of the blacks, who constitute the majority of the local population, we are forever this foreign minority whom they attack and insult fiercely in their political propaganda, and whom they intend to throw back into the sea, according to their own words”.

With reference to countries where the ethnic relations involving Indians have become complicated, Hugh Tinker, an authority on the Indian diaspora, has raised the following key issues: “ . . do the Asians [Indians] create their own difficulties by their own way of life, and by remaining separate from the host society; or do their troubles arise mainly from excess of chauvinism or racism in the country of their adoption? Do they offend because they are, visibly, both pariahs and exploiters in alien societies? Or are they scapegoats, singled out for victimization because their adopted country (or its Government) needs an alibi for poor performance in the national sphere?"

However, I will reserve the last word for Lotus Vingadassamy of Reunion in the Caribbean: “Throughout the historical development in India since the time we left, we suffered the sufferings of our fathers land, and rejoiced in its achievements...The same law of Return that was voted by the Hebrews for their scattered people should be voted. In that same way, we would certainly ask Indian nationality for those of us who might wish it. I think that we have deserved it”.