Column | The Inevitable diaspora dilemma

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, seen here with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, alleged that India may have had links to the assassination of a Sikh leader in Canada. File photo: PTI

As an eight-year-old child in my great-grandmother’s home at Thathamangalam in Palakkad, this writer remembers watching a clip on Doordarshan where an announcement was made about a potential American sales of AWACS planes to Pakistan. A well-meaning uncle with a sense of humour then began to joke about how my family was going to move to a country that was an enemy of India! This fear was implanted at that very moment and it’s hard to forget that feeling of discomfort when looking out of the window of an Air India aircraft when it landed on the runway of JFK Airport in New York.

Of course, the American government did not have interest in a tiny and skinny child from India, but such a fear of a citizen of a not-so-friendly state living in the US was not completely unfounded. Even if history books at that time did not mention the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, school teachers with a sense of ethics did so. It was horrifying to learn that a country that prided itself on being the “land of the free” would single out citizens of Japanese origin for this awful treatment, while sparing those of German origin.

Years later, back in India this writer was confronted with the ugly and shameful truth of Indians of Chinese descent beings herded off from Calcutta and Bombay to camps during the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War. They were only released a few years later and had restrictions in movement within India. Wars and even diplomatic spats can trigger tribal instincts even in the 21st century. Just look at Europe, where leaders of some European countries have openly called for interning Russian citizens in the European Union, as a form of collective punishment for what is happening in Ukraine.

Trouble with Canada

This week we witnessed an ugly diplomatic spat between India and its long-term friend Canada. Let’s be honest here - the two countries have a long-established tradition of friendship and cooperation.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a personal friend of his counterparts Louis St Laurent and Lester Pearson. Canada played a major role in setting up India’s nuclear energy programme in the 1960s. The relationship between the countries has had its ups and downs starting with India’s nuclear test in 1974 and terror attacks such as the bombing of the Air India Flight 182 by transnational terrorists based in Canada in 1985. Despite occasional lows, trade, cultural and people-to-people ties have blossomed over the decades. Canada now has 1.4 million citizens of Indian origin.

What makes the latest diplomatic spat, over an accusation of the murder of a Canadian Sikh allegedly by Indian agents and the mutual expelling of diplomats, is the dangerous language of the Canadian leadership when it comes to the Indian Diaspora. If media reports are to be believed, some in the Canadian government accuse India of using its diaspora to interfere in domestic matters in the North American country.

This is the exact kind of language that could lead to a degree of insecurity in the diaspora at a time when many governments indulge in illegal surveillance of citizens. This is not to necessarily say that Canada may do this with its Indian population. Whatever a Western country’s attitude is towards the rest of the world, it tends to safeguard citizens’ rights in almost all cases. However, such accusations are exactly the type that give rise to tribal instincts, especially in a population that is terribly under the influence of the drug called social media.

There may come a point sometime in the future in Canada or some other country where a large Indian diaspora may be forced to take sides in some sort of a conflict with India. No sane human being would like India and Canada to be enemies, but politicians worldwide thrive on a policy of divide and rule. To win votes or for popularity ratings, the creation of the “other” is an easy and time-tested approach.

Giving up Indian citizenship means that an Indian needs to show unquestionable loyalty to their new country, lest be in a position where he or she is seen as a “traitor.” This is a dilemma that many, including the new generation Malayali immigrant who chooses to go to permanently settle in a Western country (instead of going to work in the Gulf) will face. One can only hope that political and geopolitical games become outdated and the world works as one to solve the most pressing needs of humanity. Until then, a naturalised citizen will always have to prove something to the new country.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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