The Indian Diaspora – at home and abroad

Migration. Relocation. Push-and-pull. “Greener pastures.” That itch in the foot. Recollection, re-enaction, re-creation. Tensions. Homecoming and home-going. All these, and the lens of geography. In today’s column.

Throughout human history, we have been on the move. At one time or another we, or our ancestors, moved to where we now live. Wherever we live, we have many emotions about that place. We want to keep ‘outsiders’ out. Anytime we feel threatened, the immediate impulse is to seek the ‘outsiders’ who are the cause of whatever threatens us – fairly or unfairly. Witness the recent riots in parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where we inflicted violence on the ‘outsiders.’

At home

In a democracy, intranational (i.e., within the country) migration among the states of the Union should be a right taken for granted. People from anywhere in the country should be free to live and prosper anywhere else in the country. In practice, though, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

There is a strong feeling of ‘regionalism’ (e.g.: the feeling that “people from other states coming to ‘our’ state is not good”) among many in India. The roots of this feeling are complex and rooted in a lot of politics, history, and – of course – geography. We cannot deny that ‘regionalism’ exists.

A geography of the mind that can embrace larger and larger regions as a home to humanity is rooted not only in understanding how geography applies to life, but also in understanding how we are all connected.

The geography part happens only when we take our textbook learning of geography and apply it to life – i.e., we go from geography the subject, to geography the discipline. Unlike the times when I was in high school, there is a lot more geographic diversity among students these days. With geographic diversity comes cultural diversity. In my experience, and from various readings, I find that fear of ‘others’ and hostility to ‘others’ is a learned trait – children are not born with that, it is not natural for them. Playing together, building friendships, and sharing their geographies is the norm. Dislike, distrust, even hatred in some cases, is a learned behavior.

Geography education is a powerful tool to nurture the natural behavior and reduce (or even eliminate) the learned behavior. This is why I always insist that geography education should go beyond the textbook (the subject) and be taught as a discipline.

As a discipline, geography helps us understand connections among nature, humans, place, etc. In its essence, as my geographer colleague Dr Muthatha Ramanathan always emphasizes, geography is about relationships – particularly human relationships.

In these times, we have great opportunities to learn about people who live with us. Learning about the cultures of Rajasthan, Assam, Nagaland, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, etc. is very easy! Even the cultures of people from different parts of our own state, whichever that might be, are fascinating to learn about.

Why do they hold certain beliefs? Why do they celebrate different festivals? Why do they eat the foods that they eat? Such questions help us understand each other and help us build good relationships, reducing animosity. The very point that Dr Muthatha makes.


Many Indians have either settled or have been living for extended periods in other countries. We can see first-generation emigrants (those who migrated out) migrating in search of social and economic opportunities. If they settle in another country, then they are called Indian-origin or India-born immigrants to that country. Their children would be of Indian-descent, but citizens of that country – depending on their choice and the local laws.

Top ten countries with Indian diaspora. (Click on the image to go to the original site.) Source:

Top ten countries with Indian diaspora. (Click on the image to go to the original site.) Source:

Here in India we use two terms to refer to them. NRI (Non-Resident Indian) is a person of Indian origin who retains Indian citizenship (i.e., holds an Indian passport). Those who renounce Indian citizenship (i.e., give up their Indian passport) and take up the citizenship of another country are called PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin).

Geography matters!

People of Indian ethnicity and heritage who live in a country outside of India – no matter whether they are emigrants or not, no matter whether Indian citizens or not – are collectively part of the Indian diaspora. Diaspora (di-AS-pora) started out as a description of the population of Jews living outside of Israel. Nowadays, its meaning is broadened to “any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland …” (

People in the diaspora – whether at home or abroad – often maintain ties to their ‘home’lands in many ways.

Re-creating festivals, clothing, food, etc. are some ways. Recollection, watching TV shows (the communications technology is great!), movies, and other cultural programs from their home areas are other ways. In short, placing recognizable elements of their home culture in their settled space – again, whether at home disapora or abroad – is a vital part of the connection. In my own case, during the years that I lived in the USA, I had many such elements. The oil lamp that was in my mother’s shrine at home, photographs of my family, etc. were constant reminders of home.

The Indian and Chinese diasporas, compared. (Click on the image to go to the original site.) Source:

The Indian and Chinese diasporas, compared. (Click on the image to go to the original site.) Source:

Travel to the ‘home’land is another way of keeping in touch with one’s ‘roots.’ These trips can be fraught! I have friends who complain about NRIs (relatives or friends) who come to visit and keep complaining about everything – the traffic, the noise, the pollution, the lack of hygiene, etc. These friends use NRI to mean Non-Relevant Indian and dismiss the NRI’s complaints.

Some say NRI stands for Non-Returning Indian!

In any case, returning ‘home’ from a life abroad is always an interesting process as old and new mental maps undergo all manner of changes. Those changes are sometimes difficult.

Some elements also remain the same, bringing some sense of familiar comfort. When I visited home I had the constant of my parents’ presence, the excellent filter coffee at home and the like.

Geographies create mental maps. These mental maps are full of emotions, feelings, prejudices, facts, and so on. These mental maps are always undergoing change.

At home or abroad, understanding the geography under all this is not just fascinating, it is also helpful in building positive, nurturing relationships.


  1. Government of India site for NRIs.
  2. Mapping diasporas. Includes a video.
  3. Twenty maps of India that explain the country. Interesting site with interesting maps. (However, some of the maps show unauthorized boundaries of Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistan.)


A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 29 September 2016.


No responses yet

Share your thoughts

%d bloggers like this: