Overseas Indians should venture beyond fighting for their ethnic rights and become a bridge between various ethnic groups among whom they live, says PP Devaraj, a Sri Lankan of Indian origin who has been elected president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO).
"Indians settled overseas should harmonise their ethnic identity with the diversity around them," Devaraj, who was elected president at the ninth convention of GOPIO at Kuala Lumpur December 15, said in an interview.
"They will have to take a holistic view of their problems. In fact, all parties will have to look at particular issues from several angles. They have to take into account the need to remedy ethnic inequalities, the reality of globalisation and international concerns, and the need to address the interests and concerns of the dominant communities," he said.
"The Indian diaspora should help maintain ethnic harmony in the host societies while fighting for its own identity and rights."
GOPIO should get the youth to carry this message, says the 74-year-old former Sri Lankan minister, long associated with the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), a plantation sector trade union cum political party of the Indian origin Tamils.
Devaraj plans to get youth from various ethnic groups to come together in camps to enable them to discover and appreciate each other's culture and thoughts. He wants to organise a camp in Sri Lanka for Malaysian youth with representatives of the three major communities in Malaysia — Malays, Chinese and Indians. Such interactions, he believes, will help ease the tension now seen between the Indians and Malays in that country.
Devaraj feels that people of Indian origin in Malaysia, while fighting for their legitimate rights, should find ways of living in harmony with the dominant Malays. And the Malays, in turn, must find ways of accommodating the Indians, mostly Tamils.
"To make this possible, the Malaysian government must set up an independent committee, where people can air their grievances without fear. GOPIO can render assistance to the committee, using its worldwide resource pool. Other countries could take up the issue through quiet diplomacy," he said.
Devaraj laments that communities in Sri Lanka do not think beyond their own ethnicity. No effort is made to empathise with other ethnic groups. As a result, antagonisms have grown but not understanding.
"When I was in parliament, I used to participate in discussions even on matters which did not directly relate to the people of Indian origin. By such participation I was able to build bridges with members of other communities, which could be used to further the cause of the Indian origin Tamils," he said.
Devaraj added that the 25 million people of Indian origin across the globe would have to get close to each other and not be content with establishing or strengthening ties with India, and GOPIO is meant to facilitate the interaction.
"I plan to bring scholars, researchers, artistes and others together regularly. Under the aegis of GOPIO, some good papers have already been published," he said.
A founder of the Foundation for Community Transformation (FCT), Devaraj is keen that the Indian diaspora should not forget its past, even if it was very unpleasant as in the case of communities that went overseas as indentured labour in the 19th century.