SETTING THE TONE: Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan performing at the event in 2003 in New Delhi.
CHENNAI: On a wintry day in January 2003, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan, in their 80s, and Ustadji, older than Panditji by four years, came together for the first time to perform a ‘jugalbandhi.’
The concert was yet another demonstration of their mastery of the sitar and the shehnai. That marked the inauguration of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention, an event in which the Indian diaspora converge annually to celebrate the commonwealth of kinship.
The ‘jugalbandhi’ of the two Bharat Ratnas captivated the audience, who included the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Once the musical notes set the tone for the conclave, words took over. Addressing the gathering, which represented non-resident Indians (NRIs) and people of Indian origin (PIO), Mr. Vajpayee said: “We do not want your riches; we want the richness of your experience.”
Inspiring moments apart, the inaugural meeting witnessed policy announcements by the authorities and plainspeaking by some prominent ‘Pravasis.’ Mr Vajpayee said his government decided to permit dual citizenship for PIOs living in some countries. He also said a compulsory insurance scheme was being framed for Indian workers migrating to the Gulf.
Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate, cautioned Indians against adopting a “frog in the well” attitude and forcefully made out a case for valuing, defending and fighting for the spirit of openness, through which the Indian civilisation blossomed. Mahendra P. Chaudhry, who was ousted from the post of Prime Minister of Fiji in a coup in 2000, said India ought to have used its diplomatic clout to ensure that the “disenfranchised” PIOs in his home country got their constitutional right.
The idea of the convention originated from the report submitted by a 25-member high-level committee on Indian diaspora. It was set up in September 2000 with L.M. Singhvi, a renowned jurist, as chairperson. As a sequel to the committee’s report, the government decided to observe January 9 as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, as it was that day 94 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. His fight against discrimination, deprivation and exploitation of Indians in South Africa not only caught the imagination of Indians but also spurred freedom movements across Africa.
The NRIs and PIOs, with an estimated strength of 25 million, are spread across 110 countries. Their composition includes 29 lakh people in Myanmar, 16.8 lakh in the United States, 16.7 lakh in Malaysia, 15 lakh in Saudi Arabia, 12 lakh in the United Kingdom, 10 lakh in South Africa, 9.5 lakh in the United Arab Emirates, 8.5 lakh in Canada, 7 lakh in the Mauritius, 5 lakh in Trinidad and Tobago, nearly 4 lakh in the neighbouring Guyana and over 3 lakh each in Singapore and Fiji. The Singhvi committee recommended that the Divas be held in recognition and appreciation of the constructive economic, political and philanthropic role played by the diaspora.
The second edition of the programme took place in New Delhi in January 2004, with the country’s foreign exchange reserves exceeding $100 billion. Announcing more concessions for the Indian corporate sector to invest abroad, Mr. Vajpayee said these would encourage it to become global players. He also announced his government’s decision to establish a Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra.
The then President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, hosting tea for the NRIs and PIOs at the Moghul Gardens of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, appealed to them to help India lift all its people out of poverty.
The next year, the conclave moved to Mumbai. But the mood was sombre. The country had not yet recovered from the shock of the tsunami that slammed the coast just a few weeks prior to the event. Thousands of people had died, mostly in the southern parts and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and many more lost their homes and belongings. One of the participants subsequently wrote in a daily that there were even rumours that the government was planning to reduce the frequency of the conference. But such rumours turned out to be false, as the conclave has become an important event for the Indian government too. Inaugurating the conclave for the first time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered dual citizenship to those who migrated from India after January 26, 1950. Of course, this was subject to the laws prevailing in their home country.
Participating in the deliberations, Mr. Kalam called upon the diaspora to launch an overseas Indian foundation to promote research in areas such as earthquake prediction. Two representatives of Trinidad and Tobago, one a member of Parliament and the other a former Attorney-General, wanted India to use its economic and technological clout in support of Indians facing “persecution and discrimination” and to raise the issue on international fora such as the United Nations.
In 2006, Hyderabad was the venue. Dr. Singh, announcing a slew of concessions, said a decision would be taken on granting voting rights to the NRIs in the Gulf. He also inaugurated the scheme of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI), under which a life-long multiply entry visa is granted.
An easy-to-use electronic remittance gateway, developed by the Ministry of Overseas Indians Affairs and the erstwhile UTI Bank, was launched. Several Chief Ministers competed with one another to attract NRI investments.
When Mr. Kalam presented an award to a member of the diaspora, a group of overseas Indians objected to the selection of the awardee.
Taking part in the inauguration of the 2007 edition in New Delhi, Dr. Singh said the government was considering a proposal to establish an Indian Overseas Facilitation Centre that would offer investors advisory services. He made a mention of the idea of setting up a university for PIOs he talked about the previous year.
Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi said the government decided to extend a wide range of benefits to OCI cardholders. The first mini-PBD conclave took place in New York in September that year. In 2008, the event was held in New Delhi. Dr. Singh announced the establishment of the Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council of People of Indian Origin and the formation of the India Development Foundation, which would serve as a single window to lead diaspora philanthropy into India’s development efforts.
More importantly, the year saw Singapore hosting the first-ever Asia-Pacific event, “PBD Singapore” in October. It focussed on economic issues. Senior leaders of the host country wanted India to “change its mindset” about domestic politics and economic development to keep pace with China in the post-modern age.
All these years, the conclaves generated debates on a variety of issues concerning the diaspora. Perhaps, this is why the organisers have appropriately chosen the theme for 2009, ‘Engaging the Disapora: The Way Forward.’