- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — A rich man in Britain, a politician in South Africa and a cultural guardian here in Malaysia lead disparate lives, but all share one thing in common: New Delhi wants to tug at their heartstrings, and pick their pockets.

They are among the estimated 25 million Indians in a worldwide diaspora who are being wooed by the motherland as India emerges as a new economic powerhouse.

Many of their ancestors left as impoverished pawns in Britain’s imperial game, shipped to South Africa to work on sugar farms or to Malaysia to labor on rubber plantations.

Some remain poor but others have found fortune in their adopted countries, and India’s government decided this year to grant them all Indian citizenship in the hope they will invest in its booming economy.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who announced the plan to extend dual-citizenship rights to people of Indian origin in January, said the country will need huge investments to wipe out poverty, and appealed to India’s Diaspora to help provide the money.

Indians interviewed by AFP in Britain, South Africa and Malaysia expressed mixed feelings about their relationships with India and the countries in which they now live.

The 1.8 million Indians in Malaysia represent the third-largest ethnic group in that country’s population of 23 million, after the Malays and Chinese.

They have strong bonds with India and observe traditional festivals like Diwali, Thaipusam and the Tamil New Year.

But N. Nadarajah, 80, an adviser to the Temple of Fine Arts, a cultural institute promoting Indian dance and music, said there was no doubt Indians here are loyal to Malaysia despite the strong cultural influence.

“Though we are Hindus and practicing the religion and culture, we take great pride in being citizens of Malaysia.

“When I go to India, I view myself merely as a tourist. My patriotism is for Malaysia,” the former senior police officer said.

The ancestors of about 80 percent of the Indians in Malaysia were originally from Tamil Nadu state and many came to Malaya, then a British colony, in the late 1830s as indentured laborers on rubber plantations and to build roads and railway lines.

Many of their descendants remain among the poorer members of society.

“They are fighting hard for a decent living. The majority of them are at the bottom of the social ladder,” said S. Arutchelvan, spokesman of the rights group Voice of the Malaysian People.

“Minority Indians are alienated from Malaysia’s development agenda, as they lack political power. There is a strong feeling of marginalization and frustration in the community,” he said.

But many have become successful professionals, lawyers and academics, and treasure their Indian roots.

“I visit India almost twice a year. It is always refreshing each time I make a visit for research and religious inspiration,” said M. Rajendran, 41, a professor at the University of Malaya.

“Our roots are there. We are Malaysians, but culturally we are bonded with India. But if there is a war, I will fight for Malaysia,” he said.

The Indian community of about 1.2 million in South Africa — roughly 3 percent of the population — is made up largely of descendants of laborers who worked on sugar-cane plantations.

The history of South African Indians dates to 1860, when about 700 migrant workers and traders arrived in Durban from Chennai, formerly Madras, and Kolkata (Calcutta), mainly to work on newly established sugar-cane farms in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.

South African Indians maintain their religious traditions, often observing rituals more zealously than their counterparts on the subcontinent, but many of the festivals have been tailored to their adopted homeland.

The biggest festival for Hindus is Diwali — the festival of lights — where celebrations include African dances and music, along with Indian songs and Bollywood hits and Indian chart busters belted out in Zulu.

Amichand Rajbansi, leader of the Indian-dominated Minority Front party, said: “Make no doubt about it, we are part and parcel of the African population. India is merely our motherland, to whom we look for cultural and religious inspiration.”

Sociologist Ashwin Desai said South African Indians “have a great romantic notion of India, gleaned from stories they heard from their grandparents and great-grandparents, as 75 to 80 percent have never been there.

“It’s a grand notion of identifying with a nuclear power, a country that is rapidly joining the ranks of the developed world, a nation that can play good cricket sometimes, and, of course, the maker of Bollywood films.”

But he said a plan by New Delhi to grant nationality to people of Indian origin to attract foreign investment would not cut much ice in South Africa.

“Today it’s very challenging to be a South African. There are several opportunities that have opened up after the end of apartheid. Why would we put our money overseas?”

Vivian Reddy, one of South Africa’s most prominent tycoons, agreed, although he is in talks to set up a casino in the western Indian state of Goa.

“I don’t think the Indian plan to get money will draw a great response here,” he said.

Vishen Ramprasad, a young executive, summed up the feelings of the overwhelming majority of South African Indians regarding where they belong: “I always felt more Indian than South African until I went there for the first time, and I realized how South African I was,” he said.

The 1.1 million Indians in Britain represent nearly 2 percent of a population of 64 million, according to statistics released recently.

While they claim Asian ethnic heritage, they also see themselves as British: 75 percent claim British national identity.

British citizens of Indian origin and “nonresident Indians” also rank among the country’s top business leaders, including the world’s third-richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, a steel tycoon whose fortune was estimated recently at $25.3 billion.

Ram Gidoomal, chairman of the South Asian Development Partnership, told AFP there was no conflict between Indian and British identities, with many elder nonresident Indians “keeping their feet on both continents.”

“I tell people: I’m 100 percent British, I’m 100 percent Indian. And if they can’t add it up, then that’s their problem,” he said.

Many younger British Indians, however, do complain about “the heat, or the dirt, or the fact that things don’t get done in a Western way” in their parents’ homeland, said Uday Bajekal, a London-based correspondent for two Indian newspapers, the Sentinel and Vijay Times.

Angad Paul, chief executive of the Caparo Group, a Britain-based steel-products enterprise with $675 million in sales worldwide, said he believes India is “the best place for the next 20 years for doing business. It just happens to be fortuitous that we are Indians.”

Caparo Group has invested heavily in India for the past 10 years.

Mr. Paul, who went to a university in the United States and spent his early years between Britain and India, said he feels at home in any of those countries.

“You become increasingly an international citizen. Your identity comes from your own sense of belonging wherever you are.”

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