One of the last sentences of Devesh Kapur’s formidably researched book opens the door to another lively debate. Saying it’s rare for a community to migrate en masse, he concludes, “One exception is the Indian Jewish community that migrated to Israel over the 1950s for economic reasons, leaving a tiny minority in India.”
Like all generalisations, this calls for qualification. India had not one but several (two more have surfaced in recent years!) separate Jewish communities, though, together, they (like India’s diaspora) didn’t amount to more than a drop in the ocean of Indians. The oldest and most picturesque, the Paradesi Jews who settled in Cochin in 72 AD, are almost extinct. The Baghdadi Jews in Mumbai and Kolkata, who came on the Raj bandwagon and boasted grand names like Sassoon, gravitated to Britain. Mumbai’s Beni Israel adopted Marathi lifestyles. The only Indian “Jews” I met in Israel in the sixties (growing flowers in Beersheva) were Malayalis who had served the Paradesi Jews for generations and adopted the master’s identity. Now, the Bnei Menashe in Mizoram and Manipur claim to be one the 10 lost tribes of Israel, as do Andhra Pradesh’s Telugu-speaking Bene Ephraim.
The reason for dwelling on this complexity is not to fault Professor Kapur but suggest that the last word on the subject will never be said. Migration is a continuing worldwide phenomenon. The US, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are immigrant nations. The UN recently confirmed India, too, is a magnet for migrants. While the Indian diaspora is the world’s largest, it is still not of the greatest consequence globally. But segments of it loom large in India’s public discourse because of the assertiveness of some upwardly mobile Indian Americans. All money talks but dollars talk loudest. Though Prof Kapur denies this, some Indian Americans take an ultra-nationalistic line, especially on matters concerning Hinduism.
Since India has abandoned Jawaharlal Nehru’s argument, which Prof Kapur quotes, that migrants should forget the mother country and identify with the country of adoption, Indian Americans claim the credit for the present Delhi-Washington rapprochement. But it’s a moot point whether their prominence is cause or effect of the congruence of Indian and American strategic requirements. Prof Kapur skirts the controversy to advance the novel thesis that “international exit, in contrast to domestic exit, can actually amplify the domestic voice of groups that exit”. Belying Nehru, Indian Americans can eat their cake and have it too!
There are always exceptions to prove (or disprove) every rule; always unresolved tussles between neighbourhood pulls and the influence of the distant diaspora, as Prof Kapur’s chapter on foreign policy illustrates. What is true of Fiji Biharis is untrue of Tamil Malaysians. Social and communal differences among British Indians would have diluted the book’s second heading had it not been for Britain’s own leavening process which turns tradesmen into lords. In honouring ethnic Indian presidents, prime ministers and governors-generals, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas awards “officially seal[ed] India’s recognition of its diaspora” and drew a discreet veil over the origins of many now eminent emigrants.
Many books have been written about migrant remittances and the movement of capital, goods and services. Some authors treat human traffic romantically. Some autobiographical works seek to justify migration as inevitable and necessary. Many dwell on the benefits immigrants confer on host societies. The so-called brain drain used to be a topic of heated debate. Prof Kapur’s examination of what he calls “the Missing Leg of the Globalization Triad” is probably the first work to advance the tantalising thesis that a society can change itself by sending its children abroad to earn a living, which is radically different from the Chinese faith in the influence of returning emigrants.
Ignoring that conventional logic, Prof Kapur says that “elite migration has lubricated the political ascendancy of India’s numerically dominant lower castes”. The two halves of this statement deserve separate examination. Are people from society’s upper echelons migrating? If so, the push factor is no longer migration’s single most important determinant. That, in turn, erodes the pejorative overtones (at least in English English) of the word “immigrant” which conjures up a vision of penniless economic refugees. With so many of our technological graduates flocking to the US, the picture is obviously changing. The second point about their exit creating domestic space for the under-privileged is much more relevant for India’s long-term growth. It merits statistical investigation.
Prof Kapur’s other claim, based on surveys of Indians in the US (including a survey of 2,200 households) and of non-governmental organisations, is that emigration doesn’t mean loss of voice and political influence in the home country. Not only do NRIs, PIOs and OCIs impact on India’s politics, economics, social attitudes and foreign policy, but they are also an instrument of soft power. Logically, this should be only a transitional phase. After all, Jack Kennedy didn’t seek a role in Ireland. Similarly, more Bobby Jindals would fulfil the rationale of Nehru’s original postulation. Anything else suggests that people who fled to better themselves have failed to comfortably integrate themselves in the land of their choice, and that their most significant achievement there is the clout it gives them back home.
The Domestic Impact of International Migration from India
Oxford University Press; Rs 795