Diasporas: Downsides, Upsides and Insides – The Economist, a Convention and a Book

Robin JeffreyRobin Jeffrey
Visiting Research Professor, ISAS

The London-based Economist devoted its anonymously written Banyan column on 23 July to the ‘South Asian diaspora’, an interest triggered by the first South Asian Diaspora Convention, organised by this Institute in the previous week. More than 800 participants attended the two-day event in Singapore. Most agreed that the occasion was surprisingly stimulating – even fruitful.

Banyan, however, took a sombre view. Don’t expect much from the South Asian diaspora, he/she/it warned. South Asians overseas are divided and often rancorous. ‘The fiercest letters’ The Economist gets about the region, Banyan wrote, ‘come from Dubai, London and California’. And overseas South Asians don’t invest in their home countries the way Chinese diasporas do.

Maybe Banyan was stranded in traffic, deprived of Internet access and having a bad-hair day. To begin with, her/his/its estimates seemed off target. Banyan thought there were 60 million overseas Chinese compared to only 25 million non-resident South Asians and that in itself was powerful reason for not expecting much good to come from such a comparatively small, far-flung and cantankerous lot.

But it’s not clear where Banyan’s 60 million came from. It’s 20 million more than estimates in Wikipedia and other sources. They peg the number of overseas Chinese at about 40 million, including close to 10 million ‘overseas Chinese’ in Thailand.

20 million may not be worth quibbling about for investment bankers of the north Atlantic; but to scholars east of Suez, 20 million is four Singapores or one Australia (take your pick). And the last time I looked, global warming had not yet sent the South China Sea sloshing across Vietnam to link up with the Himalayas and wash Chinese-origin people in Thailand into the ‘overseas’ category. I suspect that an ‘overseas Chinese’ in Thailand has rather different experiences and qualifications from a ‘non-resident Indian’ in the USA.

The mere 25 million overseas Indians that Banyan counted are just that: people of Indian origin. But the point of bringing South Asian diasporas together is that there are more than 15 million Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalese living across the black waters. On the basis of these calculations, South Asian and Chinese diasporas work out about even – 40 million.

Such nit-picking underlines the slipperiness of the term ‘diaspora’, ‘overseas Chinese’ and a common South Asian equivalent, ‘NRI’ (non-resident Indian, which of course leaves out the nationals of six other sovereign states).  To say insightful things about people who have ties to countries different from the ones in which they live requires careful research.

Devesh Kapoor’s new book makes an impressive start on such research. Diaspora, Development and Democracy: the Domestic Impact of International Migration from India (Princeton University Press, 2010) analyses the subtleties of ‘diasporas’ and what they mean for their countries of origin and residences. Kapoor argues persuasively that the diaspora ‘contributed to several key ideas that have shaped India,’ particularly ‘economic liberalization’ (p. 259). He also makes crucial points about divisions of class, religion, and language, even among diasporas from the same sovereign state. These need to be recognised and understood, not denied.

However, if you put South Asian middle-class diasporas together on a neutral ground – as they were in Singapore in July – differences diminish and commonalities surface. (It’s worth noting, as Kapoor does (pp. 268-9), that Jawaharlal Nehru in 1946 floated the idea of a ‘common nationality’ for everyone in the old ‘British empire’ in south and southeast Asia).

There’s a growing consensus that the one thing that might break sterile stalemate between India and Pakistan and nurture the flowering that is going on in Bangladesh would be free trade. Suggestions are that opening up trade between India and its South Asian neighbours would do everyone good – to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. The Economist’s doleful Banyan agrees that ‘the potential benefits are enormous’, but argues that ‘the obstacles are … huge’.

To be sure, a Singapore-based biennial convention of South Asian diasporas is no cure-all. But pressure from prosperous middle-class South Asian diasporas, meeting regularly in a friendly nonpartisan place, can help roll away some of the stones, just as the Indian diaspora contributed to the liberalisation of India’s economy.

Richard Cobden, the nineteenth-century champion of free trade, painted a glowing picture of ‘the Free Trade principle’ that would draw people together, ‘thrusting aside the antagonism of race and creed and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace’. That’s no doubt a Pollyanna view of the prospects of the world today. Nevertheless to have a few thousand people from South Asia eating doi maach or makki-ki roti and sarson-ka saag together, and talking mutual advantage, offers a prettier and more promising picture of the region than we have seen for a long time.

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