Updated: Nov 11
India and the UK both have a rich cultural past that has been influenced by several political, social, and economic elements. With the influx of migrants, their diverse population and modern history are changing rapidly. In this context, the paper examines the strong foundation of India’s diaspora in the United Kingdom, an in-depth analysis of its impact on the political and economic system, and the contemporary difficulties faced by them to study their prospective effects on both societies. The research also sheds light on the anti-immigrant attitudes, and the vulnerability of migrant workers in the United Kingdom which can have detrimental effects on the region's diversity. In order to address this, the paper highlights the significant role played by India’s diplomatic measures regarding its rich diaspora to overcome the conflicts of subnational identities in the United Kingdom.
Key Words: Diaspora Diplomacy, United Kingdom, UK-India Relations, Migration, Immigrant Attitudes, Economic Relations
The study focuses on the role of the Indian diaspora residing in the United Kingdom (UK) and will analyze their roles in enhancing the economic and political culture of the society in which they live. Firstly, an overview of India’s diaspora diplomacy is provided with recent mechanisms and engagement in place to pursue it as an indispensable soft power tool that plays a critical role in the development of India’s relations with the world. Secondly, India’s diasporic position in the UK is examined by looking at its appreciable role in economic contributions. The changing relationship and doubts in lieu of Brexit are also portrayed to pursue ways of navigating this environment. Thirdly, the strong presence of significant names in the UK Parliament like Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, is evaluated to bring out the influence of Indian voices in political activities in the UK. Lastly, in examining challenges, two domains of anti-immigrant attitudes and concerns related to visas and the migration policy are mentioned. Such ways hinder proper diaspora engagement and the need for a strategy to look after their feelings of identity and social network are addressed.
India’s Diaspora Diplomacy and Nation Rebranding
The Indian Diaspora in conventional terms traces the movement of people of Indian origin or who are Indian citizens living abroad. One can trace the early waves of migration of the Indian community during British rule as colonial and indentured labour to Africa (Kenya), the South Pacific (Fiji Islands) and South Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia). Presently, in its third wave, we see the movement of skilled labour comprising of doctors, engineers, bankers and businessmen to developed countries such as the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. Out of these countries, the Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom forms one of the largest ethnic minority communities that resides in the nation. The World Migration Report 2019, recorded approximately 1.5 million people of Indian origin in the UK equating to almost 1.8 per cent of the population and contributing to 6 per cent of the country’s GDP (UN, 2019). Such a huge diaspora plays an important role in building transnational networks between India and the UK in the form of emotional, cultural, social, economic and political ties.
In examining these interlinked pillars, India’s foreign policy in a globalised world has been restructuring itself to place importance on its diaspora diplomacy. Even with the absence of dual citizenship in India, flexible policies have developed under the category of OCI (Overseas Citizens of India) due to the current emphasis on how immigrants are welcomed, attracted to, and incorporated into various national imaginaries (Ong, 1999). With advancements like the reformulation of citizenship, diplomacy has also taken up new rhetorics to build the strategic application of soft power to build a global presence of India through its diaspora. The project of image-building has taken the advertising slogan of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign launched in 2002 by the Ministry of Tourism, and ‘Make in India’ launched in 2014 as a counter to ‘Made in China’, which has been lauded in public relations circles as “one of the most easily recognizable efforts at nation-branding” (Kerrigan et al., 2012). To gain ground in this, India is also devoting a significant amount of energy to building national identities among the diasporic communities of the country. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) with programmes like ‘Tracing Your Roots’ and ‘Know India Program’ involve themselves in promoting the nation and communicating its message globally to reach out to the diasporic communities who emigrated long ago, were uncertain of their roots in India, or had never visited India (Kerrigan et al., 2012). To ensure the welfare of the migrant community, the ‘Madad Portal’ and ‘E-migrate system’ were introduced to take timely and speedy action on grievances addressed by people living abroad. Other initiatives include the ‘Indian Community Welfare Fund’, and the ‘Skill Bank’ incentives for Non-Resident Indians (NRI) to invest in India. The frequent foreign visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also help build this vision of India as a growing economy, investment potential and cultural powerhouse, so that its diaspora can be perceived positively in their host country. In an interaction with the Indian community in Denmark, Prime Minister Modi termed the Indian diaspora as “Rashtradoot” (representatives of the country) who are informal ‘ambassadors’ for India (The Print, 2022). In this way, a paradigm shift can be seen from traditional diplomatic efforts to developments that construct a strong image of a nation bristling with drive, passion and energy among the diasporic community.
Economic Performance of the Indian Diaspora
1.1. UK-India Economic Relations: India is the third-largest foreign investor in the UK and one of the largest job creators in the country (UK Parliament, 2018). Many Indian-origin individuals have occupied important positions in the private sector of the UK by investing in optimal trade and financial opportunities for its capital advancement. Some prominent examples include entrepreneurs like, Dr. Sanjeev Kanoria founder of Advinia Healthcare, Simon Arora CEO of B&M Retail, Rishi Khosla Co-founder of OakNorth Bank, and Sid Ahuja the Head Chef at London’s famous Michelin Indian restaurant ‘Gymkhana’. Other pivotal sectors where the diaspora has driven economic success include IT (Information Technology), manufacturing, healthcare, education and entrepreneurship. The economic benefits of such a rich diaspora are seen according to the Global Migration Report 2020, where India receives the highest remittance of $78.6 billion from Indians living abroad (UN, 2020). These remittances are an essential source of foreign exchange that promotes India’s dynamic economy. The UK is also a favourite educational destination with an increasing number of aspirational students emigrating abroad to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate courses. This trend tinted from the lens of the Indian brain drain phenomenon is seeing “today…the benefits of the reverse flow of income, investment and expertise from the global Indian diaspora. The problem of ‘brain drain’ has been converted happily into the opportunity of ‘brain gain’,” as quoted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (The Economic Times, 2010). In 2023, one can go back to the relative importance of the India-UK bilateral economic relations stressed by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, “As the world’s largest democracy, India is a natural partner for the UK in the Indo-Pacific. It is an economic and tech powerhouse. Our deeper ties will boost both our economies and help to tackle global security challenges” (Times of India, 2022).
1.2. Post-Brexit: The United Kingdom is an important backchannel for India’s diplomacy with the rest of Europe. However, this entrance was disrupted during Brexit, which represents the exit of Britain from the European Union (EU) on the basis of the ‘United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum, 2016’. Even when the referendum was up for a vote, many members of the Indian diaspora voted against it because of several doubts about stricter immigration processes and tough competition from other investors. With Brexit, many Indian companies having their headquarters both in the UK and EU will face problems and might lose attractiveness from Indian investments due to them no longer being used as a gateway to Europe. Now more than ever, with Brexit being a business and commercial challenge for India, it will need to put focus on building its diaspora’s bilateral engagement to manage its relationship with the UK without the EU. Despite the outcome of the discussions, the UK promises it will continue to have relatively low corporate tax rates, easy and quick business setup procedures, a stable political and security climate, and a robust R&D ecosystem (UK Parliament, 2018). In the post-Brexit world, the UK is now free to set its own trade policy and negotiations with other countries. India can leverage this position and explore the possibility of paving the way for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between New Delhi and London. Through this, India’s professionals might regain the unrestricted freedom to work, study or start a business. A well-negotiated agreement will boost trade and investment flows between the two regions, and strengthen India’s attempts to harness its wealthy diaspora to support its rise as a global economic power. The deal which has been languishing in the rounds of talks, needs to be fast-tracked in the interest of both the countries.
Impact on the Government by the Indian Diaspora
Members of the Indian diaspora have been active participants within the UK government as well as in shaping British politics. Ministers in the 2023 Cabinet of the UK include British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Suella Braverman and President for COP26 Alok Kumar Sharma, who come from an Indian ethnic background. In 2019 during the Boris Johnson Government, the House of Commons had 15 members of parliament of Indian origin and over 25 peers in the House of Lords, which compares favourably to the Indian-origin population percentage and made the country’s most ethnically diverse parliament ever (GrantThornton, 2022). Even though the situation in municipal and local governance is less apparent regarding Indian representatives, the presence of British Indians is continually growing to become more active in local politics and promote diaspora concerns.
Approximately 60 years after Indian immigrants first arrived in the UK, this decade presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The governmental presence creates a platform of lobbying for India with members having a voice to fight for causes important to the Indian diaspora and the larger Indian community. In the creation of ‘the living bridge’, with a parliamentary presence in the UK, the Indian diaspora can help India become a potent future partner and help recognise the positive impact of immigration on UK society. To this end, ideas can shape the UK’s future immigration policy by taking into account India’s positive immigrants’ abilities and the economic and societal contributions they can make.
Challenges in Building Diasporic Connect
1.3. Anti-Immigrant Attitudes: In an Immigration Survey conducted by the British Future in 2022, ‘Overall, just under half (46%) think migration has had a positive impact on the country, whilst three in ten (29%) disagree’ (IPSOS, 2022). These numbers indicate mixed attitudes with a third of the public seeing immigration as moderately beneficial in general, and around half regarding the impact of immigration as negative and costly for Britain. As a result of these narratives, there has been an impact on the rules on student migration, limiting the educational options to foreign students and their employment options in Britain upon graduation, changes to family reunion migration rules, new income requirements for those looking to bring dependants into the country, and changes to labour migration rules limiting the number of work permits issued (Gower and Hawkins, 2013). The social divide and misinformation on the web have also created problems for policy-makers to integrate decisions to help various interest groups and make a migration policy that would not be generating widespread public discontent.
1.4. Visa Permits and the Fate of the Workers: Migrant workers in the UK often find themselves in jobs that do not pay well, have no security and welfare benefits and where employers are not willing to sponsor their visa for long. Even though Britain faces a shortage of labour in sectors like agriculture, food processing and hospitality, due to poor pay and/or conditions workers are hesitant to take them, providing them with fewer options and higher competition with each other for better jobs in other sectors. Issues of work permits have dominated the narrative of the Indian diaspora for a long time. In 2017, London scrapped the post-study work permit for international students which led to a sharp drop in Indian student numbers even as Chinese student numbers swelled based on special visa arrangements. The Parliamentary Inquiry Report ‘Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India Ties’ released in 2019, highlights that India seems to face tougher visa norms as compared to a non-democratic country like China forms discontent (The Statesman, 2023). On the other hand, a white paper on post-Brexit visas and immigration strategy has been unveiled which is expected to benefit Indian students and professionals, with a focus on skills rather than country of origin. This ‘Point Based’ immigration system, is expected to benefit India which has a market for highly skilled labour. Lastly, the fate of fugitive Indian businessmen such as Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi who seek political asylum in the UK is a bone of contention that needs to be solved through law and political efforts. In response, to safeguard migrant workers, it is important Britain includes India in dialogue measures to treat its diaspora with respect and uphold labour laws by eliminating prejudice.
India has seen the involvement of a globalised sense of diaspora diplomacy that can help awaken a sense of pride among its population abroad and strengthen their desire to act as change agents for India in various fields. To leverage this, the role played by India’s diaspora in the UK as a vibrant community is indicated in terms of economic and political contributions. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is time to reset the relationship between Delhi and London to deliver a modern partnership by including its diaspora. There are certain practical steps as well that can be taken by the two governments such as resolving the delays in introducing the FTA to create a positive investment environment as well as making it easier for Indians to visit the UK to work or study here by easing the visa regulation. The findings indicated that such efforts can be enhanced with the help of policymakers, interest groups, international organizations and society. Consequently, both migration and diaspora management are expected to remain high priorities and will surely grow in importance as India and the UK work closely together to reap more benefits with their cooperation.
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