Role of Indian Diaspora Abroad from National Security Perspective By Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)


As size of Indian diaspora is growing so are questions about their role in the nation building or otherwise. Today Indian Diaspora is sizable and gradually improving qualitatively and also quantitatively. Simultaneously, certain disgruntled people having issues with the current system of governance within the country use the sanctuaries of foreign countries to wage a campaign against India. In this paper I am attempting to analyse the correlation between Indian Diaspora and India’s national security.

Why Migration from India: A Historical Perspective

Some of the reasons for migration from India were as follows:-

  • India was a source of knowledge from time immemorial.
  • Indians had an adventurous streak to explore.
  • Population explosion led to more confident Indians to look for fresher options abroad.

Reasons for Migration from India from Time Immemorial-  

  • People Moving Out for Emotional Reasons
    • According to Korean legend, a teenage princess Suriratna from Ayodhya crossed the ocean in a boat some 2,000 years ago, sailed 4,500 kilometres to Korea and married King Kim Suro who founded the Gaya Kingdom in the north Asian country. The princess, Suriratna, then became Queen Heo Hwang.
    • Rupati a Kaurava General went to Tibet after Mahabharata.
    • The folklore says that King Nyatri Tsenpo was originally from India; he was the son of a royal family related to Gautam Buddha’s family.
  • Movement Based on Expanding Kingdom– Cholas from South India during the reign of Rajendra Chola-I, successfully invaded the Srivijaya  kingdom in Southeast Asia during 11th  Remnants of that period are still found in South East Asia. Before that Srivijaya Empire formed in 500 CE in South East Asia itself  was also of Indian origin.
  • Spread of Buddhism – Ashoka sent his son Mahendra and Daughter Sanghmitra  around 250 BC to Sri Lanka. It is believed that Singhalese of Sri Lanka are of Indian origin. Buddhism also went to Central Asia, and thereafter to China in 3rd Century CE .
  • Knowledge Based Movement
    • Tibet: Buddhist gurus Santarakshita, Guru Padmasambhava and Kamalashila went to Tibet during 7-8th In fact Kamalashila was the one who won the Samye debate held during the period 792-794 CE, which firmly established Indian Buddhism in Tibet. Exchange continued and  Thonmi Sambhota came from Tibet to Nalanda to study and developed the Tibetan script based on the Nagari and Sharda script.
    • An Astronomer-mathematician and diplomat from Sind; Kanaka; went to the court of  Caliph Al Mansur (754–775 CE) at Bagdad which is in present day Iraq. Intrigued by Indian astronomy and mathematics, the Caliph also got translated Brahmagupta’s texts like Brahmagupta Siddhant and Khanadakhadyaka, which introduced concept of numerals.  These interactions continued and  Persian astronomical tables influenced by Indian astronomy,  were  later translated into Arabic.
    • It is also a matter of record that the Indian medical practices and pharmaceuticals were also highly sought after in the Islamic world. Numerous Sanskrit medical texts were translated into Arabic and this task was sponsored by Khalid, Al-Mansur’s vizier. Incidentally, Khalid, was originally from a Buddhist family in Balkh in Central Asia.
    • Later, under Caliph Harun al Rashid (788-809 CE) Susruta Samhita, source of Ayurveda was translated. An interesting development took place during 13th Century, when these Arabic translations got translated into Latin, thus Indian medical science reached Latin America.
  • Trade based movement
    • The beginnings of India’s international trade can be traced back to 2,500 BCE, when during the Harappan civilization Indians traded goods with Mesopotamia and other parts in the Persian Gulf region. From 321 BCE onwards during the Maurya rule, expansion of trading activities and the establishment of cultural links, took priorities; Achaemenid Persians and Greco-Macedonians were willing partners in this arrangement. The recent agreement to establish IMEC (India Middle East Europe) Trade Corridor on the side line of recently held G-20 in New Delhi, is a step in the direction of reviving the old trade linkages.
    • The post-Mauryan era saw further entrenchment of  international trade and commerce, both in terms of range of goods and volumes traded. Trade, both overland and maritime, was carried out with the external
    • The eco system of that period needs a bit of study as it was a very interesting arrangement. Since the Indian sub-continent is not one homogeneous region, neither geographically and nor culturally, and that is why  the trading system of that period evolved in different manner. The littoral regions engaged in overseas trade, while the traders from the interior regions traded with the littoral regions, and acted as feeders. The Central and Southern Indian uplands traded minimally, but the relationships between the transacting regions, and the non-transacting ones changed continually from trade to mobile labour and capital. The non-transacting ones being predominantly agricultural regions with a vast reserve of artisans and craftsmen, skilled in producing goods not only remained involved in manufacturing but were in great demand for providing skilled labour in the International market. It is unfortunate that this eco system started to decline firstly during the 11th to 17th Century as India kept becoming inward looking and during 18th Century, with British getting foothold in India post battle of Plassey in 1757 CE this decline became quite prominent.
    • In olden days, India was prominently trading with South-west Asia and the littoral countries of Mediterranean sea via the Arabian Sea and with South-east Asia via the Bay of Bengal. The well-known centres of trade initially were Lothal, Bharuch in West and East coast of Andhra and Tamil Nadu for South East. During the medieval period the trading Centres were Surat in the West and Bengal and Masulipattanam in the East. Thus Indian Ocean trade routes indeed continued being used, up to the medieval period.
    • The trade between India and China, using sea route was via the Indonesian Archipelago (as the voyage from the Coromandel Coast to the straits of Malacca was a comparatively shorter one). It is ironical that even today it is probably the best route. Since movement through Strait of Malacca is dominated by India, for China it is ‘Malacca Dilemma’ as described by former President of China; Hu Jintao.
    • It was not only the Sea, that was the route for trading with far east, especially with China but there was also a northerly land route from India to China through Assam, Upper Burma on to Yunnan in Tibet which is now part of China. In fact use of this route finds mention in the history as early as 128 BCE.
  • Girmitia Movement– Slavery Abolition Act, (1833) is a landmark event in British History which had a profound impact on migration from India. Suddenly, an acute shortage came up in all those British Colonies where labour was needed. The British found a very innovative system to get labour from India. They got into a legal and binding agreement with Indian Labour (Indenture labour) to work in these colonies. The word girmit actually represented an Indian pronunciation of the English  word “agreement”.  The agreements specified the workers’ length of stay in foreign parts and the conditions attached to their return to the British Raj. Since these labour had to move to these colonies in Ship they were also referred as Jahajis. Thus these indentured labours were identified as  Girmitias, who were  also known as Jahajis. They were   transported to work on plantations in Fiji, South Africa, Eastern Africa (namely Mauritius, Seychelles, Reunion, Tanganyika (present  day Tanzania), Kenya and Uganda), Malaysia, Singapore and Caribbean Islands (namely; Trinidad & Tobago, Guiana and Suriname)  as part of the Indian Indenture System.  Frankly speaking it was exploitation of economically weaker Indians who were mainly from present day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They were told that their agreement would be for five years but in practice they never came back. Be as it may, between 1870 and 1916 more than a million people moved as a part of this system. Today these Girmitias  form a major part of Indian Diaspora. In Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname and West Indies.
  • Post-Independence Movement– After India’s independence the well-educated and professionally capable Indians migrated towards the developed countries of West, specially to  United States of America, Canada and United Kingdom as enough opportunities were not available in India. Later in 1990’s Australia also emerged as favourable destination for these migrants. One of the main reasons for this outward movement was that though the education system, with the introduction of IITs education system in late Nineteen Fifties and early Nineteen Sixties  had become world class, but industry had not progressed enough to absorb these highly skilled personnel. Post IT revolution in India during post 2000 CE this process in fact got further boost . In this connection it needs to be noted that in 2022, a total of 2,25,620 persons had given up their Indian citizenship, highest in the last 12 years. Further till June 2023, 87,026 Indians had given up their citizenship.

What is Indian Diaspora- Indian Diaspora is a generic term used for addressing people who have migrated from the territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India. It constitutes NRIs (Non-resident Indians) and PIOs (Persons of Indian origins). It needs to be noted that earlier the movement, particularly prior to middle of 17th century was known as migration as word sovereignty had not been defined prior to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 CE. Thereafter India was a colony of British till 1947. The word Diaspora is more relevant during the post-independence period.

A Reality Check with Respect to Current State of Indian Diaspora

  • Historically, India has been a key contributor to global migration. According to a Ministry of External Affairs report, there are 6 million Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), 18.68 million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs), and nearly 32.3 million Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs)residing outside India, and overseas Indians comprise the world’s largest overseas diaspora. Every year, 2.5 million (25 lakh) Indians migrate overseas, which is the highest annual number of migrants in the world. There are  Ten countries where Indian Diaspora is strongest. These are; US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Myanmar, UK, Canada, Oman, Kuwait and South Africa. As per info available in open domain US has around five million Indians/ people of Indian origin.
  • It is estimated that assets of Indian Diaspora is in the range of over $ one trillion, which is about 1/3 of Indian GDP. Remittances now exceed $ 100 billion which is highest in the world.
  • H1 B visa to Indian IT professionals is 80% of total H1B visas issued by USA.
  • In UK Indians are largest ethnic Minority and in New Zealand Indians are fastest growing ethnic minority who are second largest group of Asians. In US Indian Americans are the third largest Asian Americans ethnic group.
  • Average earning of Indians in 2015 was $101,591 per annum  as against $ 51000 and $ 56000 for overall immigrants and native born respectively.
  • Educationally 32% Indians are graduates and 40% post graduate as against 30 and 21% of all Asians and 19 and 11% of average Americans.
  • 6% of start-ups in Silicon Valley in 2006 were founded by Indians. 36% of scientists in NASA are of Indian origin. In fact  more engineering  and tech companies  were formed by Indians as against immigrants of UK+ China+ Taiwan+ Japan put together.

What is National Security- National security, is the security and defence of a sovereign state, including its citizens, economy, and institutions. It entails security to its territorial integrity, security against internal fissiparous tendencies, Its culture & Heritage.



What does it mean and How to do it

  • India should be having a strong leadership with a strong will and a , strong defence/ internal security forcesNative Indians are responsible to elect a government which is ready to take tough decisions with a long term perspective!
  • Strong economy- correct policies, adequate skills, globally connected economy, availability of FDI/ FII/ Technology- including local R&D integrated with institutions of the world- GoI, Indian people and Indian Diaspora. It needs to be noted that the support of Indian Diaspora is possible if qualitatively people in diaspora are influential.
  • Creating an Enabling Environment in the Target countries on Indian Values and culture- Indian embassies and Indian Diaspora by being a pressure group and creating a favourable lobby. Every member of diaspora can contribute to it by generating awareness. This flags the need to ensure that the diaspora is well aware of culture, values and strengths of Indian nation and a mechanism of dialogue with them is in place- Celebration of ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas’ is a step in that direction. Also OCI card is yet another enabling arrangement for diaspora to remain connected with India.
  • Making Indian Diaspora feel that they are part of India and India cares for themResponsibility of GOI and Indian Embassies taking proactive action during crisis situations.
  • Forming Pressure Group to deal with forces inimical to India- Indian Diaspora to debunk mis-information and also crating counter movements against those movements who wish to break India.
  • Improve interdependence – No master to client relationship and that will help India to retain its strategic autonomy- Besides GOI policies it is Indian Diaspora which can create this kind of enabling environment- Note! As affluence of Indians/ Indo Americans improve and the number of Indian increase they can increasingly become influential as Jews are today.

What to guard against and How to share info-

  • Efforts of forces inimical to the growth of India– Such efforts originate from countries like Pakistan & China and in more recent times leftist ideology which is attempting to divide India and by implication Indian Diaspora into caste, ethnicity and religion- Movement like Khalistan, Free Kashmir and equating movements like ‘Black Lives matter’ to creating false perception of persecution of Dalits, ethnic/ religious minorities in India.
  • Dealing with Foreign Media and other opinion Makers- An organised effort needs to be made create a Pro- Indian lobby in the target countries needs to be created and Foreign Media and Think Tanks need to engaged to debunk mis information- Indian Diaspora could be extremely helpful in this regard.
  • Funding of organisations inimical to India- Hawala is one of the major source of funding and that needs to be plugged.
  • Religious places become hot bed of such intrigues- need to keep them free from such influences and keep intelligence agencies informed.


Way Ahead

An informed, Pro-Indian and influential, both financially and politically India Diaspora is an important element in India’s National Security Matrix as it would help in building a favourable opinion about India in the Target countries.

Indians travelling abroad need to be well versed with Indian Culture, Indian Values and current state of affairs in India with a view to know our strengths. Indian traveling abroad should also be generally in the know of the culture and traditions of the target countries. MEA may consider compiling a booklet on the subject, which can be handed over to people travelling abroad so that they are better prepared to deal with adverse comments in the target countries and their conduct is in line with the good Indian traditions.

Most Important! Every Diaspora member needs to remember that he is the sentinel of the Indian Nation and Indian Values. Therefore it is essential that he should try to  be a good Indian imbued with Indian Values which the world is looking for.

Author – Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)  is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs.  He is Sr Vice Chairman of Think Tank, “STRIVE”,  after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.

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