For most of the new NRI generation, the Indian migration started about 60 years or 100 years at the most. But this saga goes back over 2,500 years ago much before Biblical times to distant shores of Africa, South-East Asia and the Far East. Considering that they travelled by sailboats into uncharted seas in voyages that took months to the Far East, it remains a humongous achievement.
Most of the second NRI generation in the US and Britain traces its roots to their fathers who left their motherland after India became independent. Canada is an exception as sturdy Punjabi farmers settled there earlier around 1930s.
NRIs in East and South Africa, Mauritius and the Caribbean go back to just over a century when their forefathers went abroad to work as labourers to build a railway in East Africa or work on sugar plantations.
While Sri Lanka and Myanmar are just over the horizon for Indian seafarers, negotiating tricky straits and storms to land in Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali and the Philippines demonstrated their real test of skill and endurance over 2,500 years ago. Sailing west was relatively easy as the annual monsoon winds carried their sailboats from Kutch to the Gulf and then south to East Africa and a few months later, they returned as the winds changed to the opposite direction.
"The diaspora of Indians in ancient times to the countries of South East Asia and the annals of those kingdoms by the Hindu colonists were quite unlike the later European ways of colonization," writes Utpal K Banerjee in his new book, Hindu Joy of Life. "Among the European powers were the English, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spaniards, all five of which acted with explicit support of home government and were accompanied by military forces to back them to forcibly impose supremacy over the people of other countries; mainly to exploit the resources of the colony and benefit their homeland."
The Indians, on the contrary, enriched the native populations by introducing the art of writing, high degree of culture, improved methods of cultivation, improved handicrafts and introduced new industries, claims Banerjee.
"Indians went out of their country without any sort of backing of any of the Indian states," he said. "Hindus left their motherland to settle abroad in colonies and not to make fortune and run back to the motherland. It was diaspora in the truest sense, where the penetration of Hindu civilization, culture, languages in South East Asia took place so peacefully that the indigenous population never felt that their country had been taken over."
Here is a book that chronicles the 2,500 years of Indian settlement abroad in lucid terms in one of its chapters. This highly readable panorama of the Hindu way of life, as opposed to narrow religion described in dry, abstract terms, presents the full canvas of the arts and culture that endures in all NRI communities to this day.
In full colour, it is an ideal introduction for the new NRI generation to learn about their heritage from their gods, scriptures to their fine arts, dance and music. The author writes with the experience of travels to almost all the countries with NRI populations and many more where he was sent to lecture on Indian art and culture.
He scripts the NRI saga right up to the present day, outlining how the British rulers channelled the recent waves of Indian settlement abroad.
After the abolition of slavery, the planters needed farm workers and so they tapped the huge manpower resource of India for the sugar plantations of Jamaica, South Africa and Mauritius from UP and Bihar. They needed workers to build the Kenya Uganda Railway towards the end of the 19th century, so they sent them from Punjab. They needed farmers for the hostile lands of Canada and so Punjabi farmers were allowed in.
After the Second World War, both Britain and the US needed factory workers, skilled professionals and admitted Indians in large numbers from 1960 onwards. The latest flow of Indian immigrants to the US, Britain and Canada came from east Africa in the 1960s to 1980s when the independent African governments wanted to provide jobs for their indigenous peoples. At the end of the last century, Indian IT workers went to fix the Millennium Bug in the computer systems followed by thousands of IT professionals.
Wherever NRIs settled, they have prospered. As law-abiding citizens by and large, they have preserved enduring Indian values. And they have maintained their links with India from distant lands through their way of life. Banerjee pays NRIs a warm tribute by writing, "This is no mean achievement, in spite of the initial handicaps and owes a lot to the innate vitality of the Indian civilization." In brief, India has always been 'a soft super power'.
Kul Bhushan is a media consultant to a UN Agency