This year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas coincided with the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India for good. It was held in Gandhinagar, barely 40 km away from the place he made his first home in India. Since the PBD has so much Gandhi about it, it is only proper that he should have addressed it. The fact that he is dead does not matter because he lives on through his writings, and they, including his various speeches on similar events, provide enough material from which to construct what he would have said. What follows is an imaginative and imaginary articulation of his address.
You who are assembled here to celebrate the PBD come from different parts of the world and represent different phases of migration. I see reflected in this gathering the complex legacy of the past two centuries of our history, both depressing and inspiring. I shall begin with a few quibbles about the way the event is organised and end by offering a constructive programme I would like you to follow.
I am a little surprised that the PBD falls on my day of return from South Africa. I had returned for good, and surely the government of India does not want all Pravasi Indians to follow my example! More importantly, I do not like to appropriate our entire history and be made its centre. Anyway, January 9 nicely falls during the time most of you are in India and can easily squeeze in this event.
I am a little concerned that attendance at the PBD costs quite a bit of money in travel, registration and accommodation. This puts it beyond the reach of most NRIs and makes it a largely middle class and Euro-American affair. I see this in the composition of today’s audience, which clearly does not represent all classes and groups. Perhaps the government of India could subsidise the event, as in the case of haj, or assist with the travel and accommodation.
I am also surprised that most of you are in your 50s. I do not see many young people among you. Unless they retain their ties with India, the country will have no meaning for them except as an exotic place for tourism or marriages. We should not allow the thread of history to be broken in this way. I am told that the government of India has developed, or is planning to develop, imaginative schemes such as government sponsored tours of the country for young NRIs, summer schools, exchange of students, and Getting to Know India programmes. I recommend them, though I don’t as a rule want the government to be involved in such activities except as a last resort, and would prefer independent foundations to sponsor such programmes.
When I returned to India, I wanted to be part of the country and identify myself with its people. I spoke their language, dressed like them, travelled third class, listened to them with humility and respect, and kept my mind open. I sometimes feel that some of you take pride in being and appearing different, and keeping a distance from the people of India. For their part, they too respond in similar terms and see you as desi pardesi. Some of you seem to want to impress and patronise them. In return, they flatter and fleece you and say silly things behind your back, surely not the basis of a happy relationship. I want to see a day when both of you feel fully at ease with each other and relate as members of a single ethno-cultural family.
I returned to India to serve it. Having observed its sorry state from the safe distance of South Africa and worked out a programme for its regeneration, I thought I had something to offer. Following my political guru Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s advice, I spoke little and sought to familiarise myself with the deepest anxieties and aspirations, weaknesses as well as strengths, of our people. From time to time, I got things wrong but learnt from my mistakes. My advice to you is to do the same. India, as it actually exists in all its fluidity and complexity, is quite different from the India you read about in foreign newspapers or watch on foreign TV, including many of the Indian channels. It takes time to unlearn what you have learnt, and see the country from a fresh perspective.
I don’t expect many of you to return for good, though some of you can and should, now that you have raised your family and made some money. The rest of you should work out appropriate ways of contributing to the country’s development, not only financially but also through your knowledge, skills, contacts, networks and ideas. I know many of you have donated generously to worthwhile projects such as setting up hospitals, schools, colleges and residential homes in both rural and urban areas. I am proud of you.
You can do much more, especially in the fields of higher education, research and professional management, where India lags behind and is largely imitative. Although I did not fully appreciate their importance, I did set up the Gujarat Vidyapith, supported Gurudev’s Visva Bharati and encouraged research in agriculture, intermediate technology and classical languages. I would like you to train Indian students and researchers by setting up collaborative projects with Indian institutions, helping them with the necessary equipment, drawing them into international academic networks and taking talented students abroad for further training.
You can and should be involved in the running of Indian educational and other institutions, particularly those where you once studied. You could and should be appointed to their governing bodies, form part of their mentoring groups and help change the culture of complacency. You can make similar contribution in other areas of national endeavour such as journalism, civic activism, advising government departments, urban planning, and public administration.
I know you love the country, each in your own way, and take great pride in it. I would, however, want you to bear three points in mind. First, India has its own rhythm, its own way of thinking and doing things. While it should learn from the advanced countries of the West, it cannot and should not mimic them. You should not try to shape it in the image of the country in which you are settled, a temptation Indian Americans sometimes find particularly difficult to resist.
Second, while being attached to India, you also owe loyalty to the country of your citizenship, and should balance the two. In the West and elsewhere, I see a strong hostile reaction against those perceived to be interested in the affairs of other countries and thus not wholly patriotic. This is misguided, but a fact of political life which you ignore at your peril.
Finally, long-distance nationalism is a dangerous sentiment. You have your fears, interests, prejudices and would like India to move in a particular direction. While this may suit you, it does not suit India. Rather than fit India into your agenda, try to fit into its. The Indian government would naturally wish you to promote its interests abroad, just as your own country would want to use you to promote its interests in India. I am sure you will be wise enough to navigate your way through both kinds of pressure.
Now that India and her overseas children are at last coming together and establishing a mature relationship, I feel confident that the future is bright for both.
The writer, a Labour life peer in the House of Lords, is author, among others, of ‘Gandhi’s Political Philosophy’ and ‘Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory’