Book review: Understanding Indian diaspora`s complexities

Last Updated: Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 10:04

Book: Indian Diaspora and Transnationalism; Editors: Ajaya Kumar Sahoo, Michiel Baas, Thomas Faist; Publisher: Rawat Publications, Jaipur rawatbooks.com; Pages: 442+xiv; Price: Rs.1,150.

Like the parable of the Elephant of Hindoosthan, the Indian diaspora is indeed a strange animal; difficult to map, complex to comprehend and wide in its scale. "Migrants," says this book, "no longer simply cross borders to live elsewhere but regularly turn this `crossing borders` into a lifestyle of its own"."

"Indian Diaspora and Transnationalism" sets out to "present not only an important overview of the state of the study on Indian transnationalism but also act as an important source of inspiration to think beyond the concept and the way it has been studied so far".

Seventeen essays, three editors, and over 400 pages go into this effort. The range of approaches and diverse themes chosen make this an easy and fairly interesting read, even for one not directly connected with the subject itself. Some essays have been compiled from other sources, as the acknowledgements page makes clear, but the choice is interesting nonetheless.

Early on in the hard-bound volume, its three editors raise issues of "theoretical developments and practical implications" of Indian transnationalism. They point out that, with over 25 million people, India`s "is now one of the largest diasporas in the world".

"Perhaps no other diaspora in the world is characterised by such diversity in its population as the Indian diaspora in terms of culture, including languages, regions, religions and other forms of social stratification," say its editors, in a essay written collectively.

This volume has been edited by Ajaya Kumar Sahoo (assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Indian Diaspora, University of Hyderabad), Michiel Bass (coordinator, International Institute for Asian Studies, Amsterdam/Leiden), and Thomas Faist (professor, Transnationalization and Development, University of Bielefeld, Germany).

The label of diaspora has, in recent years, become an interesting sought after - and contested - term, Pablo S. Bose of the University of Vermont reminds us in an essay titled "Kolkata, Transnationalism, and the Diasporic Imaginary". The size of the Indian diaspora is variously estimated at anywhere between 18 and 40 million people worldwide, he notes. Such a wide discrepancy in figures has much to do with how one defines membership.

"To think of Kolkata as a diasporic city requires, at first blush, considerable imagination," writes Basu. But, he says, interviews with promoters and developers of projects suggest that between 25 and 75 per cent of ownership in condominium complexes is by overseas Indians, for instance.

Some interesting figures: Indian IT engineers rank second in number only to Chinese immigrants in Silicon Valley. They make up a sizable proportion of today`s hi-tech millionaires across the globe. The Gujarati diaspora alone, less than 0.01 per cent of the population of the United States, is estimated to control over five percent of that country`s wealth.

With five million "guest workers" admitted into Germany since the 1960s, the country has still refused to be called an "immigration state". Indian IT professionals are in many ways "priviledged as migrants" there, say Louise Meijering and Bettina van Hoven (both of the University of Groningen). They study skilled migration, key motivations for migration and experiences in Germany (including language, social structures, working culture and racial discrimination).

Scholars note that once migrant colonies become well established abroad, a flow of "transnational economic and information resources start". These range from occasional remittances to "the emergence of a class of full-time transnational entrepreneurs", notes an essay by Steven Vertovec (University of Gottingen).

C.J. Fuller of the LSE and John Harriss of Simon Fraser University in Canada, in a chapter titled "Globalizing Hinduism", look at "a `traditional` guru and modern businessmen in Chennai."

Another essay on "conceptualising Hinduism" by Heinz Scheifinger mentions its "incredible diversity" and the online images of Hindu deities.

One study looks at how the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) of India and its student organisation SIMI "developed links with Islamists in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran..." Irfan Ahmad (Monash University) says the JIH had to devise new methods of working in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as royal regimes there do not permit political congregations. Like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the West, the JIH in the Gulf functions "more as a cultural and social body rather than a political organization", says Ahmad.

If labour patterns are "converging" globally, are the US work-family patterns inevitable worldwide? This question is asked by Winifred R. Poster (Washington University) and Srirupa Prasad (University of Missouri-Columbia) who study work-family relations amidst hi-tech firms in India and the US.

"Transnational love and marriage" in the Australian-Indian diaspora is studied by Hurriyet Babacan and Narayan Gopalkrishnan (both of James Cook University, Australia). They look at "culturally rooted pressures" on young people choosing life partners and also "multi-directional forces".

Sangay Mishra`s essay is on "the limit of transnational mobilization" and focusses on attempts by Indian American lobby groups and the India-US civil nuclear deal.

Mishra (University of Southern California) suggests that those taking part in this "elite form of political mobilization" aimed to support India`s "national ambitions" as well as to "use this as a unifying issue for the Indian American community to enhance its political effectiveness and influence as an American minority."

IANS



First Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 10:04
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