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Heritage Vast Indian Diaspora Builds Bridges

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
June 5, 2011

Vast Indian diaspora builds bridges

June 05, 2011

Haroon Siddiqui - The Star, Toronto

On Jan. 9, 1915, Mahatma Gandhi returned home after 22 years in South Africa where he invented non-violent resistance to fight racial discrimination. He would use satyagraha (Truth Force) in India to end British colonial rule in 1947.

Now on Jan. 9 every year, New Delhi hosts 1,500 representatives of the vast Indian diaspora of 25 million from 100 countries. A regional version comes to Toronto Thursday and Friday at the Metro Convention Centre for the 600,000 Indo-Canadians and the four million people of Indian origin in the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Wooing the 500 delegates will be Governor General David Johnston and Premier Dalton McGuinty plus a ministerial and business delegation of about 100 from India.

India received $54 billion last year in remittances and investment from its diaspora. That’s more than the annual trade between India and the U.S. — and 10 times the trade between Canada and India.

Canada wants that trade tripled to $15 billion by 2015. It is negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement. It has already signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. To tap into India’s burgeoning $1.2 trillion economy, it wants to sell more commodities, machinery and services. It wants to help Canadian companies bid on hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure projects.

Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Manmohan Singh designated 2011 as “the Year of India in Canada.” Tomorrow, Jim Flaherty’s budget is expected to include $12 million for a research centre of excellence on India in Canada. Arrayed with him on the front benches will be two Indo-Canadian junior ministers, including the first bearded, turbaned, kirpan-carrying Sikh member of a federal cabinet, Tim Uppal of Edmonton.

On June 25, the International Indian Film Academy is holding its annual awards night in Toronto. All 22,000 seats at the Rogers Centre have been sold out for weeks. A live telecast on Omni, hosted by Lisa Ray, expects an audience of 700 million worldwide.

India is ever more present on the Canadian landscape. There was the Maharaja exhibit at AGO. World Literacy Canada is getting Toronto students to do a book on Gandhi for release on Oct. 2, his birthday. The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian Nobel Laureate is being celebrated, mostly by Indo-Canadians. (They are among one million South Asians, who include people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal).

The Indian diaspora is second only the 35 million strong Chinese one. Starting in the 1830s, British colonial rulers sent hundreds of thousands of Indians as indentured laborers to sugar plantations in Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana; the tea, coffee and rubber plantations of Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Fiji and Mauritius; and to build the railway in East Africa.

These “coolies of the empire” were followed by those providing spices and services. That’s how Gandhi, the British-trained barrister, ended up in South Africa.

More recent Indian emigrants have mostly been educated and skilled. “They moved voluntarily from one democratic jurisdiction to another,” says Didar Singh, deputy minister of Overseas Indian Affairs. Or they went as expats to the oil-rich Gulf countries.

“The global Indian is diverse — religiously, ethnically, linguistically — and generally hard-working and eminently adaptable,” he tells me over the phone. Nearly all speak English. All have varying degrees of emotional, cultural and culinary links to India.

The relationship was not always smooth. In their post-colonial phase of xenophobia, many Indians thought of Non-Resident Indians — NRIs — as Not Really Indian. Many in the diaspora did not want to be associated with the India of starving people and cows, either. V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian in the U.K., exemplified the pathology.

“There are no thinkers in India” — a “wounded civilization,” home to “a million mutinies.” The great writer was equally vicious about blacks, Muslims and the unwashed. But no sooner had the thriving India emerged than he descended on Delhi and declared fidelity to India’s then ruling racist Hindu revivalist party.

Now the diaspora’s links with India are defined mostly by legal status. The six million in the Gulf, who cannot get citizenship, remain Indian passport holders, forever shuttling. But those who are citizens of Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have proven beneficial to both their adopted lands and their homeland. They and their children are being courted by both sides to be the bridge to greater mutual economic, cultural and political benefit.





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