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The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen wrote in his book “Identity and Violence” of the dangers of what he called a “miniaturisation” of our identities, by which he meant viewing ourselves narrowly through the prism of one category, be it race, religion or class. His views were shaped in part by his childhood experiences of Indian partition, of seeing the rage of religious based violence erupt within peoples who had lived together for centuries.
Religion was notable by its absence in the Indian PM Modi’s speech this week at the Sydney Allphones Arena to thousands of the Australian based Indian community, an event that underlined the growing importance of diaspora politics. Rory Medcalf, the Lowy Insititute’s South Asia expert, says that diasporas have the potential to both reinforce and complicate our relationships with Asia.
There was certainly no effort to subdue any feelings of Indian nationalism however as Modi stoked the hearts of the diaspora with references of rising India and Australian connections to the Indian rebellion of 1857, which is often referred to in historical texts as the First War of Indian Independence, a time when sections of the Indian army rose up against British authorities sparking significant civilian unrest through territories controlled by the East India company.
Sporting his neatly trimmed, grey-white beard and clad in the trademark waistcoast, Mr Modi embodied the power of possibility, as the son of a tea-seller who rose to become leader of the world’s largest democracy.
“He makes us proud to be Indian like no other leader has made us proud,” said Dr Yadu Singh, a cardiologist and Indian community leader. Dr Singh said local Indians had a much greater hope that their country, so often portrayed negatively in stories about gender based violence, corruption and poverty, could finally reach their potential. He also alluded to their growing political influence. “There are almost half a million Indians and our votes can sway seats in western Sydney and outer Melbourne. We have more clout to go for policy changes to suit India.”
Laywer, Academic and Indian community activist, Pallavi Sinha, says there was a real sense of optimism and possibility at the Allphones event. “Modi has mobilised the Indian diaspora towards common goals, largely about promoting the goal of India becoming a more, prosperous, significant nation on the world stage.” She said Modi was particularly modern, even using social media to great effect, underlined by a selfie at the MCG with Tony Abbott. Modi commands several million twitter followers and six million facebook friends.
Ms Sinha also noted that while the organisers of the event were primarily Hindu based, there was broad based representation from Muslims, Christians and Indians of all backgrounds. Modi ‘s past as the leader of Gujrat in 2002 when hundreds of Muslims were killed in communal violence still haunts him, an event that led him to having his US visa rejected a decade ago.
Like his performance in New York’s Madison Square Garden in September, Modi was treated to chants of “Modi, Modi” in Sydney as he energised his fans. It is part of an active policy on the part of the Indian government to woo the diaspora towards promoting the development of their ancestral land, from the easier to and fro of technology professionals between Silicon Valley and Bangalore to the raising of campaign funds from the wealthy diaspora. In the United States, Indians are only 1% of the population but statistically the most successful immigrant group in terms of average income and education levels.
The trend is likely to be similar in Australia, but perhaps a decade or so behind. According to the most recent Census figures, the number of Indian-born Australians has trebled in the past decade with the number of Australians who identify themselves as of Indian origin now more than 400,000. Hinduism has become the country’s fastest growing religion and more than 100,000 Australians speak Hindi at home. The vast majority arrive as skilled migrants or international students.
India is perhaps most active in using the talents and resources of his diaspora, having its own government department to focus on non resident Indians (NRIs), a term first coined to connote Indians living abroad. Remittance payments from the diaspora totalled 70 billion dollars in 2013, five times the current trade between Australia and India.
It is mirrored in India’s cultural heart, that of Bollywood. According to Australian based Indian film expert Anupam Sharma, for decades the expatriate Indian was the epitome of the crass, diluted Indian, no longer aware of cultural roots. In recent years that has changed with the NRI becoming the epitome of Indianness, embodying a capitalist and consumerist modernity with Hindu traditionalism. The on screen NRI role models were seen as an instrument of Western modernity in India and of India’s recognition as an international power, perhaps best depicted in movies like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
In the US, non resident Indians have modelled themselves on the Jewish community, revered for their organisational nous with regards to lobbying governments, primarily with regards to policies towards Israel. But in doing so, they have also attracted a degree of criticism in pandering to Islamophobic elements in the Indian community. In this respect Islamic terrorism has offered an opportunity to help differentiate Indians from Muslim migrant groups, both in terms of the community’s success, but also a more comfortable co-existence of their ancestral Indian identity with that of their adopted lands. It is further entrenched by a growing military alliance between Israel and India, with Israel now the second biggest arms supplier to Delhi after Russia. Australia may be pulled into this orbit having signed a new defence agreement with India this week.
Terrorism has worked much like a symbolic partition for South Asians, with religious based identities being once more called into strong focus. For example, whereas I as a Bangladeshi-Australian was once viewed as primarily part of the subcontinental melange, terrorism recast my identity, as it did with Pakistanis, primarily through the lens of being Muslim.
Transnational identities are of paramount importance in the modern world, with unprecedented flows of migration and money all magnified by the new communications technologies. It is most pronounced in the issue of home grown terrorism, given extremist Muslims are forthright about their membership of the global community of Muslims known as the “ummah” taking precedence over their national ties.
Dr Yadu Singh is emphatic about his and the Indian community’s priorities. “We are Australian first, no doubt about it. But when there is no conflict or tension between policies, we are eager to promote India’s interests.” says Singh, noting they were some way behind the sophistication of the Indian lobby in Washington.
Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr agrees there is a growing influence of what he calls “active, lively communities” such as those from China and India. but feels they are not yet significant and established enough to carry strategic influence on Australia’s foreign policy. He cites the Australian Tamil community being a genuine example of a local community who organised efficiently in response to what they considered human rights threats in Sri Lanka from the Sinhalese majority, culminating in marked protests wanting an Australian boycott of the CHOGM conference in Sri Lanka last year.
“Leaders will take note of such communities, but our strategic interests for the community at large will always take precedence.” said Carr. However, he added that political parties are taking greater note of foreign policies when campaigning within ethnic communities, citing Chris Bowen’s pamphlets titled “Labor for Palestine” in last year’s Federal Election aimed at the large Arab presence in his western Sydney seat.
Diasporas have growing importance in helping to facilitate business and cultural ties internationally and project Australia’s reality as a cohesive, confident multicultural nation. The Chinese and Indians living abroad have long been commercially important but were previously faced with the closed economies of their ancestral lands. The overseas Chinese now connect the world to China and China to the world. The Indians do the same for India.
While globalisation is often regarded as a force diluting former ethnic and cultural bonds, there are trends they can re-awaken or re-invent ancestral ties. But the emerging reality of influential ethnic lobby blocs may become a greater feature on how foreign and trade policies are set, particularly with regards to countries such as China or India, the fastest growing origin of Australia’s migrants and civilisations re-emerging as global powers, a a force reinvigorating their diaspora communities.