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Reinventing India
By Mohd Zeyaul Haque

Over the last few weeks the country’s media were preoccupied with developments in Sri Lanka and Fiji. The interest was understandable as Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indians in Fiji have some kind of an umbilical chord still attached to India. The ties are so close that anything happening in those places affects large sections of people immediately and deeply: the deposed Fijian premier’s nieces and nephews in Chandigarh had been spending sleepless nights and Parabhakaran’s kinsmen in Chennai had been worrying for him and his warriors. 

Bonds of blood do not recognise borders, niceties of diplomacy and international law. People (in Tamil Nadu) demanding the division of Sri Lanka on the lines of Czechoslovakia between Sinhalas and Tamils can be forgiven as human beings are apt to forget norms of politeness under severe stress.

As a state, India’s position has been unambiguous. It has all the sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils, and would want that they get a fair deal and far greater autonomy within Sri Lanka, stopping short of an independent state. In the case of Fiji too, restoration of democracy and recognition of the country’s plural character would be enough to satisfy India.

These events have put in focus an already growing consciousness of what one can loosely call transnational India—the Indian diaspora communities all over the world. Numbering around 20 million, they send in annual remittances amounting to nearly $10 billion, more than half of it from Middle East alone. That is only one aspect of it. There are other aspects too—both welcome and baneful.

The remittances come almost exclusively from the Non-Resident Indians and Indian workers abroad on work visas who do not have NRI status. The long-settled communities like those in the Caribbean hardly send in anything at all. However, that does not mean that they are not concerned about developments in India. Indians going away to settle in far off lands took with them their memories of the country, its landscape, its flavours, colours and aroma, its people, its ways of looking at life, their faiths and ways of worship.

The earliest Sikh settlers landed in Canada a century ago, at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time indentured labourers from East UP and Bihar crossed Kalapani after sailing for three months in a jahaz (ship) to settle in the Caribbean and be known as Jahajis. Eminent men like ex-prime minister Chhedi Jagan and world class writer VS Naipaul, to name only two, are the children of these Jahajis. It was only natural that they remembered the motherland, told their children to remember who they were, what was their religion, which were the sacred places back home in India.

The problem with the Caribbean Indian’s sense of India is that it is largely an India of the late nineteenth century as seen then by peasants of Eastern UP and Bihar, people who had no exposure to even India of that time beyond a few kilometres from their homes. The language (Bhojpuri which, in fact, is a dialect of Hindi) they took with them was largely incorporated into their version of Creole. Many of the words that survived are sometimes not easily recognisible by a Bhojpuri speaker from today’s Eastern UP or Bihar. The religious rituals they performed were only a pedestrian, do-it-yourself version of the proper Vedic affairs conducted by Pandits in India. The intervening period further made that askew. The caste composition and low literacy of the desperately poor Jahajis too contributed to the cultural dilution.

Now that there are signs of native Creole assertion, and the Whites too have their own world to live in, people of Indian origin in the Caribbean look more nostalgically to India in the hope of cultural reassurance and continuity. As the Jahajis were predominantly Hindu, their preferred image of India is a "pure", Hindu India, uncontaminated by the arrival of Muslims, that is pre-Muslim India. Like all romantic ideas, this too does not take any great account of the present reality. If one wants to understand and sympathise with VS Naipaul cheering mosque demolishers, one has to put it in this perspective.

Incidentally, this perspective also explains heavy financial and political backing to Khalistan movement from Canada, and to the Kashmir militancy from Kashmiris in Europe, Middle East and North America. The love and nostalgia for India (or a certain part of it) is spurred on by several things, including a nagging sense of guilt about having left the country for a more comfortable life abroad. Yet another factor is the fear of being culturally swamped by the dominant group in their new homelands. Possibly the most dangerous is the desire to reinvent India in their own image (an image frozen in time around 1895). This is something that has a negative impact on India and encourages trouble-makers here who are flushed with foreign funds.

Coming back to Sri Lanka and Fiji, the best course for Indians in India, Non-Resident Indians, Indian workers abroad, and descendants of Indians in far off lands is to preserve the warmth of kinship without forgetting the hard realities on the ground. Otherwise, there is every possibility of upsetting a precariously balanced order within India and in the comity of nations.
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