Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the second day of the three-day Pravasi Bhartiya Divas summit at the Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar, some 30 kilometers from Ahmedabad, on January 8, 2015. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the second day of the three-day Pravasi Bhartiya Divas summit at the Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar, some 30 kilometers from Ahmedabad, on January 8, 2015. Photo: AFP

On January 9, 2003, while inaugurating the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian-Origin or Non-Resident Indians Day) in New Delhi, the prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said: “the Indian-origin community abroad often reflects the diversity which is the hallmark of our society here [in India].”

He added: “We are proud of this diversity – whether it is linguistic, religious or regional. Groupings like the Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi and Marathi associations serve a useful purpose in preserving linguistic skills and regional cultures.”

He further explained why January 9 was chosen to celebrate the day. “On this day, 88 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India after nearly 20 years as a pravasi bharatiya [Non-Resident Indian] in South Africa. His struggle against discrimination, deprivation and exploitation of Indians in South Africa not only fired the imagination of Indian patriots, it also inspired a spate of freedom movements right across the African continent.

“From those freedom movements emerged pravasi bharatiya heroes like Seewoosagar Ramgoolam from Mauritius; Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker from South Africa; Cheddi Jagan from Guyana; Jagennath Lachmon from Surinam and many others,” he said in his speech.

But 16 years later, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the event has been given a Hindutva nationalist agenda.

A date changed

In a letter sent to a representative of a civil-society organization (CSO), the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that the 15th edition of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas would be held between January 21 and 23, 2019. According to the letter, the dates were changed “out of respect” for the diaspora from Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Notifications uploaded by different Indian embassies also confirm that the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention is being organized “in reverence to the sentiments of the larger diaspora community to participate in Kumbh Mela [a holy pilgrimage touted as the largest gathering of people in the world] and their desire to witness the Republic Day parade.”

The program’s schedule reveals that the participants will leave for Allahabad, the city in Uttar Pradesh where the Kumbh Mela is held, on the morning of January 24. They will return to New Delhi by a special train on January 25. 

In the letter to sent to the CSO representative, the MEA said, “It is informed that the Kumbh Snan [the part of Kumbh Mela in which devotees take a dip in the River Ganges], recognized by the UNESCO as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity,’ is also happening in January 2019, which is very close to the convention.

“In addition, encouraged by the huge success which saw [the] august presence of 10 heads of state/government in the Republic Day parade, the ministry has been approached by Indian organizations, community and elected leaders of the diaspora, expressing their keen desire to participate in the Kumbh Snan as well as the Republic Day Parade. Accordingly, in reverence to sentiments of the larger diaspora, for this time only the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention is being held during 21-23 January 2019,” the letter said.

In response to a query filed under the Right to Information Act, this correspondent was informed that foreign participants in the 2019 event will be offered participation in the Kumbh Mela and Republic Day on January 26 in New Delhi.

Not for migrants’ issues

“We all know that Gandhiji was a migrant and it’s his return to India from South Africa [that] is commemorated as our Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. However, unfortunately, like in other spheres too, the current government wants to ‘erase’ Gandhiji, his contributions and memories,” Indian migrant rights advocate Rafeek Ravuther said.

“Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has lost its importance and has become a platform only for multimillionaire Non-Resident Indians for networking and dining,” Ravuther said. “The poor and struggling Indian migrant workers’ issues are rarely discussed there.

“Indian migrants, especially in the [Persian] Gulf, are facing a tough time due to the oil price crisis, localization policies and political tensions for the last few years. Every week, we are coming across cases of stranded Indians in the Gulf. Additionally, the numbers of those returning empty-handed are also going up. These issues are rarely discussed there.”

He said mixing the day with the Kumbh Mela had now made the event a holy sightseeing trip.

Ravuther’s observation is borne out by parliamentary records. Recently, the minister of state for external affairs, V K Singh, told Parliament that the government had brought back 101,336 Indians stranded in foreign countries had been brought back from countries affected by war, internal strife and natural disasters between April 2014 and December 2017.

He said the figure included repatriation of Indian nationals caught in situations impacted by economic slowdown in the Gulf region and facing difficulty due to employment-related issues. “The government of India has accorded the highest priority to ensure the safety and well-being of Indian nationals abroad,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, Mini Mohan, a migrant-rights activist and a political observer in Kerala, said: “It is beyond logic to understand why a platform meant to discuss migrant issues is mixed up with a religious festival. But when we see the right-wing track record there, it is not a surprise. The diversity of ideas has gone.”

On the second Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, in 2004, Vajpayee said he continued to carry memories and melodies of the previous year’s event, in which globally celebrated Indian musicians Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar mesmerized the audience in a duet with their musical instruments, the shehnai and sitar.

“What they created together was both soul-stirring music and a pointed metaphor, and we felt the same way today as we heard another enchanted jugalbandi [duet] by L Subramaniam and Sultan Khan. It reminded us that Pravasi Bharatiya Divas itself is a celebration of the jugalbandi between the 22-million-strong Indian diaspora and your motherland, between the bharatvasis [Indian residents] and the bharatvanshis [people of Indian origin],” his speech added.

That duet between two people of different faiths won’t recur in 2019, however, as only chants from the Indian holy book Yajurveda will fill the air, while monks and saints from 13 Indian monastic establishments will gather to take the holy dip.