According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2020, 281 million people, or 3.5% of the world’s population, were living outside their country of origin. They are the Diasporas or people dispersed from their Homeland.

Unlike the natives of their land of settlement, the Diasporas have two different attachments – one to the country in which they are citizens and the other to their ancestral land. The “host” country and the “sending” country derive benefits from the Diaspora. Both also have issues with the Diaspora. In other words, Diasporas have played constructive as well as destructive or problematic roles.  

Diasporas are so much part of the global scene that States and even international development organizations like the UN and the World Bank seek to utilize this growing segment of the global population to further their goals.

Functions of the Diaspora

While the host countries use the Diasporas’ skills for their economic development, the “sending” countries (their “Homelands”) secure remittances and in the case of India “prestige” too. In the host countries, Diasporas are useful vote banks. They are also used to further the country’s foreign policy. For example, the Sikhs and the Tamils in the UK and Canada are vote banks for White politicians. And Homelands use their Diasporas as pressure groups to influence host governments. It is said that the Indian Diaspora in the US is performing such a function in Washington DC.

The Diaspora is not a new phenomenon. But it is only now that it has become important. This is for two reasons: (1) the growth in its numbers (2) the growth of its economic and political clout in the host countries.

Indian Diaspora

In the 19 th., and much of the 20th., century the Indian Diaspora was large, but it had little or no clout because it was mostly poor. In addition, the Diaspora was only a cog in the British imperial wheel  with no independent status. In fact, the poverty of the Indian migrants was so embarrassing to India’s nationalists that they lobbied with the British Indian government to ban the emigration of labourers.

But there has been a sea-change since the 1990s. The 4 million-strong Indian Diaspora in the US plays an important part both in the US and India. It contributes immensely to economic life in the US and makes Indians back home proud. With increasing political participation in the US, the Indian Diaspora has emerged as a major promoter of India’s interest in Washington DC.

The Indian government has institutions to liaise with the 32 million-strong global Indian Diaspora. India does not allow dual citizenship but has the Overseas Citizens of India card which gives the cardholder permission to take jobs and do business in India but not seek political office.

Be that as it may, the Indian Diaspora could also be a source of trouble for India as the Sikh Diaspora in the UK, Canada and Australia are turning out to be. The prime supporters of the Sikh “Khalistani” violent separatist movement in Punjab, are not in India but in the UK, Canada and marginally in the US and Australia. The recent attacks on the Indian High Commission in London, the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and Hindu temples in Australia by Khalistani Sikhs have strained India’s relations with these countries. In retaliation for the British police’s failure to protect the London Indian mission, India removed the security barricades near the British mission in New Delhi.

Sri Lankan

The Sri Lanka Diaspora across the world is three million strong. The Sinhalese Diaspora, typically comprising economic migrants, contributes to Sri Lanka’s coffers substantially through its remittances. Unlike India, Sri Lanka allows dual citizenship, which allows greater utilization of the Diasporic resource.

But the Lankan Tamil Diaspora, comprising refugees and rebels, has been a source of trouble for the Lankan government. The Tamil Diaspora lobbies against Colombo in the host countries and international rights organizations like the UNHRC. During the 30-year war, the Lankan Tamil Diaspora was a major source of funds for the separatist Tamil Tigers. Since the end of the war, it has been funding Tamil candidates and parties during elections. It also sets their agendas.

Some States have reserved seats in their parliaments for their Diaspora. Political parties cultivate Diaspora voters and even pay for their travel to come and vote in national elections.


China’s 50 million-strong Diaspora comprising wealthy Chinese, spread across South East Asia, directly shaped the reform debates in China during Deng Xiaoping’s regime by serving in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress. They influenced the conception and implementation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in China. The technology and capital they sunk into these SEZs powered the take-off of China’s export industries, weighing the political scales in favour of continued liberalization and opening, says John Lee in a 2016 article in East Asia Forum.

Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese, who still dominate the private sector in every ASEAN country, are significant investors in China or are middlemen for other actors’ business. About 90% of Indonesia’s commerce with China involves Chinese Indonesians, John Lee adds.

Political Dimension

Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandeville of George Mason University say in their paper Diasporas in Global Politics that many Diasporas also exert direct political influence on their Homelands. The authors point out that Senegalese in France, Somalis in England, Kurds in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, Serbians in Sweden, Sikhs and Tamils in Canada, and Croatians and Ethiopians in the US have intervened directly in the contentious politics of their Homelands.

When Homeland governments become authoritarian, displaced communities in the West take up those contentious issues. When Sikh and Tamil separatisms failed to get traction in India and Sri Lanka, the Sikh and Tamil Diasporas kept these movements alive in their countries of adoption. The Diasporas fully exploit the freedoms guaranteed in Western countries to debate Homeland issues, formulate ideas, propagate them, and agitate on them untrammelled by repression in their Homelands. Diasporic groups have played major roles in fomenting and supporting conflict in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kashmir, Israel, and Palestine.

Diasporic Nationalism

Diasporas sometimes engage in “romantic long-distance nationalism” that prioritizes divisive symbolic issues, Lyons and Mandeville point out. This could create law and order problems for the host governments and create ethnic or religious tension locally. For example, a Hindu right-wing group in the US used anti-Muslim symbolism at a public event in the US. Hindus and Muslims clashed in Leicester in the UK which had an international dimension as the Indian government lodged a protest with the British authorities. India intervened when Sikhs in Australia attacked Hindu temples.

Lyon and Mandeville point out that Diasporas tend to amplify the extremes of a given political spectrum, thus weakening the moderate middle.

However, generally speaking, economic migrants (as opposed to conflict-generated migrants) tend to play a constructive role both in their host society and their Homeland.

Nursing Great Leaders

An important point to note in favour of the Diasporas is that there are many examples of the Diaspora playing a key role in nation-building and national liberation movements. Epoch-making leaders like Garibaldi, Lenin, Gandhi, and Ho Chi Min had all spent years abroad fashioning their political ideas and ideals to bring about radical changes in their respective Homelands. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized the Indians of South Africa to get some of the harsh racist laws modified. He developed his unique technique of fighting for community rights – the non-violent Satyagraha – in South Africa and applied it back home in India with resounding success.


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