(JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa)

On Diaspora Day, Marking the Centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Return to India


JANUARY 08, 2015

India annually celebrates Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas, or the Diaspora Day, as an occasion through which India and its diaspora interact. The event is held on Jan. 9, which coincides with the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India in 1915, from South Africa. This year the PBD acquires greater importance due to the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa.

The event this year is being held in Gujarat, which is the partner state this year and Gandhi’s home state to which he had returned to practice law. This year therefore, PBD has a strong focus on Mahatma Gandhi, his influence and achievements.

The PBD was institutionalized in 2003 by the government of then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as an effort to enhance India’s outreach to its diaspora. The date is a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi who, besides being revered as the Father of the Nation, is considered an eminent Indian diaspora member, who returned to the country and decided to work for its freedom and social improvement.

This year the event will include specific focus on youth and children from the diaspora, including a session on “Know India” and another session on “Acknowledge India,” both of which would look at India’s socio-economic development, culture and innovation. Four universities will interact with youth including the Petroleum University, the Entrepreneurship Development Institute and universities of law and information technology. The president and prime minister will be present on the occasion and the Chief Guest will be the president of Guyana, Sir Donald Ramotar.

The Indian diaspora is broadly of two categories. People of Indian Origin (PIOs) are those who went to several countries to work and have acquired citizenship of other countries. Another category is the Non Resident Indians (NRIs), who are Indian citizens working or studying abroad. Both of them have made a substantial contribution to the countries they live in and to India.

The special focus on Mahatma Gandhi highlights the link that the Father of the Indian nation and universal upholder of moral values has with India’s diaspora policy. Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 and on his return in January 1915 he toured India. His visit to Shanti Niketan, the university of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, led to a great friendship and Gurudev Tagore honored him with the title of Mahatma, or great soul.

During his tour, Mahatma Gandhi acquired knowledge of rural India and its aspirations and how they could be harnessed for the freedom movement of India. His fight against colonialism was also a fight for a just and equal society in India. Thus through Satyagraha and Ahimsa as his weapons, Mahatma Gandhi molded the large mass of farmers, villagers and common people in a political movement which broke the shackles of colonialism in India.

Gandhi had honed many of his tactics and philosophy in South Africa, where he fought against economic exploitation and social humiliation. His fight against discrimination and for equality led to many changes and the birth of a political movement. It was his connection with the Indian diaspora that guided the government of India in 2003 to set up a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to look after the interest of Indian communities abroad. Several schemes, like the PIO card and the Overseas Citizenship of India card, which facilitate easier access for the Indian diaspora to India, have been created.

Gandhi focused on several social issues. One of the most common was on cleanliness and sanitation, and he even once said: “Sanitation is more important than independence.” In his view, sanitation was important for good health and the environment.These emphases have been converted by the government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a new campaign called “Swachh Bharat,”or “Clean India,” which was launched last year on Gandhi's birthday, Oct. 2. It aims to have a clean India by the time of Gandhi's 150th birth Anniversary in 2019. This campaign is nominating celebrities and dignitaries who take up the challenge of cleanliness to spread its message across the country so that these good habits can be institutionalized.

Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi focused on skill development, which is an essential part of human resource development. At the Phoenix settlement in South Africa, he combined education with instructions on how to work on various relevant skills and vocational training was provided to the young people in the settlement. An average of 8 hours for manual training per day was provided during that period and this idea of development of skills has once again taken up by the government of India under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership.

A new Ministry for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship has been set up to improve coordination and would evolve an appropriate skill development framework to bridge the gap between supply and demand of skilled manpower through vocational and technical training. Thus educational institutions and labor markets are to be brought together by focusing on skill development of 500 million youth by 2020. This program will be integrated into the "Make in India" campaign also launched by the new government, which focuses on greater manufacturing activity which is a great employment generator.

Gandhi always believed that India lived in its villages. He therefore paid more attention to economic and spiritual upliftment of villages and advocated cottage and small scale industries which used local resources, manpower and knowledge.

Governments have started giving attention to development of villages and rural industries. Prime Minister Modi has launched an ambitious scheme called “Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana,” or Parliamentary Model Village Scheme on Independence Day with intent to develop rural India through its elected representatives. Under the scheme, every one of the 800 members of parliament will adopt three villages each and develop their physical and institutional infrastructure by 2019. Though this is small step it is likely to lead to development of 2,500 villages.

The government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi is modernizing India but at the same time it has not forgotten the wisdom of its great leader. At the end of the day the government works by the ‘mantra’ given by the Mahatma:

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny?

India’s revitalized goals are now clear and are being inculcated in the diaspora policy and will be on display and discussion when India and its diaspora meet on Jan. 9.

Gurjit Singh is the ambassador of India to Indonesia. He has abiding interest in development diplomacy.