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India-Malaysia Relations

A summit of the Group of 15 nations of the Non-Aligned Conference, which discusses economic issues, was to be held in New Delhi in 1993 when Shri Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. The administration of Mr.Bill Clinton, then in office, mounted an exercise through President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to sabotage this summit. Some leaders of member-countries, including Mr.Mubarak, informed Shri Rao that they would not be able to attend the summit due to domestic preoccupation. The real reason was the US pressure not to attend. The summit had to be postponed since it would not have had the minimum quorum of 12. It was held next year after reducing the quorum requirement to five heads of State or Government and three deputy heads. This came to be known as the five plus three formula.

2. The postponement of the 1993 summit due to US machinations and the collusion of Mr.Mubarak with the US caused considerable embarrassment for Shri Rao and India. Despite the postponement, Dr.Mahatir Mohamad, the then Malaysian Prime Minister, and President Suharto of Indonesia visited Delhi to express their solidarity with the Government of India at the time of its discomfiture. Policy-makers in Delhi even now remember the role played by Mr.Mubarak in sabotaging the proposed New Delhi summit of 1993. That was one of the reasons why, when a subsequent summit of the Group was held in Cairo, Shri A.B.Vajpayee, the then Indian Prime Minister, did not attend it.

3. How many of us remember the campaign carried on by the Clinton Administration against Malaysia and Dr.Mahatir Mohamad? Dr.Mahatir became a persona non grata with the Clinton Administration because of his independent political and economic policies. He was one of the very few Asian leaders not invited to the US so long as Mr.Clinton was the President. He followed independent policies not only vis-a-vis the US, but also against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other US-dominated international financial institutions. When the economies of South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines collapsed in 1997, the Malaysian economy remained largely unaffected, thanks to the vision of Dr.Mahatir.Even after the crisis broke out causing panic and demoralisation across South-East and East Asia, he maintained his independent line and resisted many of the ideas emanating from US-dominated financial institutions.

4. After having realised that Malaysia and its leaders could not be bullied, the US administration changed its policies after Mr.George Bush took over as the President in 2001. Dr. Mahatir was invited to Washington DC after 9/11. The relations have since improved, but even now the Malaysian political leadership resists US-inspired ideas, which it fears could be detrimental to its national interests. A good example is its opposition to US-inspired ideas for strengthening maritime security in the Malacca Strait.

5. What I had stated above would illustrate two things. Firstly, it is not correct that Malaysia as a State has been ill-disposed towards India. Secondly, it has a proud political leadership, which has not hesitated even to defy the world’s sole super-power when it felt it was necessary to do so in its national interests.

6. It is important to remember this because in the wake of the recent demonstrations by a large number of Malaysian citizens of Indian origin in Kuala Lumpur and the visit to India of an important leader of the Hindu Rights Action Front (HINDRAF), a coalition of Indian-origin organisations in Malaysia, all sorts of bizarre ideas have been floating around for being tough with Malaysia in order to protect the interests of the Indian-origin Malaysians. Any idea of using the big stick against Malaysia— even the very talk of it— could not only damage the State-to-State relations between the countries, but prove detrimental to the relations of the Indian-origin Malaysian citizens with the Muslim Malay majority. If we think we can cow down Malaysia through such strong talk, we are mistaken— as the US and China learnt in the past.Let us not hurt the sentiments of the proud leadership in Malaysia by indulging in such talk, even if we don’t follow this up.

7. India has four main interests with regard to the Indian-origin Malaysian citizens: Firstly, that they progress economically and get their due share of the national cake; secondly, that the Malaysian authorities refrain from actions such as the demolition of Hindu temples and idols, which hurt the sentiments of Hindus not only in Malaysia, but also all over the world; and thirdly, that the Indian-origin Malaysians maintain harmonious relations with the Malay Bhumiputras and the Chinese-origin Malaysians. These interests should be taken up informally through back channels anbd not through public statements.

8. India should not give any impression that it has been showing belated interest in these issues— after having remained oblivious of them for years— because of the agitation of the HINDRAF. The HINDRAF is not the only representative of the Indian-origin Malaysians. One does not even know the background of its leaders and the extent of following they have in the Indian-origin community. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which is part of the ruling coalition, and some non-political opinion-makers of the Indian-origin Malaysians have shown signs of discomfort and concern over the manner in which the leaders of the HINDRAF have been agitating and projecting India as the mother country, which should come to their help.

9. A group of Malaysian Tamil writers, which had recently visited Tamil Nadu, had disagreed with the kind of picture being painted by the HINDRAF leaders. It would be unwise for India to let itself be influenced by the rhetoric of the HINDRAF leaders. The Malaysian Government has been unwise in trying to project the HINDRAF leaders as sympathisers of the LTTE and as acting at the behest of Hindutva elements in India. We will be equally unwise if we treat them as the sole and genuine representatives of the Indian-origin people and let ourselves be influenced by their rhetoric.

10. Hindus all over the world have genuine reasons for anger over some of the policies of successive Malaysian Governments as pointed out by me in my previous article titled “Root Causes of Hindu Anger in Malaysia”. As good friends and well-wishers of Malaysia, we have a right to expect that Kuala Lumpur will address these causes. But we have no right under international law to act as the de jure protector of the interests of the Indian-origin Malaysians.

11. During the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao-Zedong, the Chinese authorities assumed aggressive postures as protectors of the interests of the overseas Chinese all over the world. The ultimate result: The overseas Chinese population was viewed in many countries as having extra-territorial loyalties to China. By our words and statements, we should not unwittingly create similar suspicions about the Indian-origin communities abroad.

12. When Mr.Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, many felt concerned over the high-profile interest taken by his Government in cultivating the Indian-origin diaspora abroad and over its implications for India’s relations with countries where these people live and for the future well-being of the Indian-origin communities themselves. A well-argued article on this subject was written in 2003 by the late Shri J.N.Dixit, former Foreign Secretary, who subsequently became the National Security Adviser to Dr.Manmohan Singh. A copy of his article is annexed. (10-12-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )


Diaspora Conference: Doubtful Decisions and Dual Loyalties

By J.N. Dixit

The much-publicised Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or Indian Diaspora Day, was celebrated this month with the government playing host to hundreds of overseas Indians.

The objective of the conference was to affirm that the Indian people and government now acknowledge that the Indian diaspora has become a significant factor in the country’s external relations as well as domestic politics.

The diaspora is being perceived as a possible source of influence and inputs, both abroad and in India, serving Indian interests.

A number of policy decisions were announced, indicating the government’s appreciation of the incremental role being played by Indians abroad. One of the most important decisions was granting of dual citizenship to certain categories of Indians living abroad who have acquired foreign citizenship.

The government had earlier decided to issue persons of Indian origin (PIO) cards to overseas Indians. During the last four years, the government had also extended privileges and facilities with regard to grant of visas and education in technical and professional institutions for children of non-resident Indians (NRIs) and so on.

The decision to grant dual citizenship has been opposed on various grounds, which are rooted in some fundamental questions.

The first question is how granting Indian citizenship to PIOs who have acquired foreign nationality would serve India’s substantive interests. What are the motivations of Indians abroad for demanding dual citizenship and of the Indian government for granting it?

The presumption or anticipation is that giving dual citizenship to Indians will give them a greater sense of identity with India. Secondly, privileges such as travel, acquisition of property and extension of educational facilities would result in their becoming more obligated and involved in the developmental and economic progress of India. Thirdly, grant of such citizenship will increase their commitment to India in the countries where they reside.

This raises the question why such decisions should be on a quid pro quo basis. Is citizenship an issue to be settled on the basis of a bargain?

The objectives behind the decision can be met without the grant of dual citizenship if the government is sufficiently flexible in providing facilities to PIOs and the latter are sufficiently emotionally committed to their linkages with India and India’s causes.

The fact that the Indian community abroad insists on dual citizenship implies that they predicate their involvement with India on New Delhi granting them privileges of citizenship despite their having acquired foreign citizenship voluntarily. This does not show much of a commitment or involvement with India.

The other reason why this is an avoidable gesture is because it is being granted on a selective basis. It is not being extended to all Indians who are foreign nationals living in all parts of the world. Out of 20 million Indians living in different parts of the world, dual citizenship is likely to be granted to 4.5 to 5 million Indians living in Western Europe, the U.S., Canada and other prosperous countries like Japan and Australia.

PIOs in other parts of the world will not be eligible for this facility. Then, again, the grant of dual citizenship is a conferment of facilities and privileges without obligations on the part of Indian beneficiaries abroad.

They will not be part of political processes of India. There will be no obligation on their part to serve the Indian government if it becomes necessary. They can detach themselves from obligations towards India by claiming their basic national identity with a foreign country.

Leaving aside some marginal economic and social benefits, the grant of dual citizenship results in the phenomenon of ambiguous loyalty amongst those who get it.

The resentment and angst the large numbers of PIOs in other parts of the world would feel about this selective grant of dual citizenship can create tensions in Indian communities abroad as well as problems for India’s foreign policy. This is apart from the fact that a fair segment of Indian public opinion does not see any justification for the grant of dual citizenship.

Out of 184 countries that are members of the U.N., only about 40 countries allow dual citizenship to their communities living abroad. Apart from aberrations resulting from dual loyalties, travel and property facilities resulting from the grant of dual citizenship can create problems of security and socio-economic tensions within India.

This is particularly so in a poor country like India where the proposal would give benefits to well-to-do Indians living abroad those only merit is their having gone abroad and become rich.

This decision is rooted in many of the political parties in India, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), depending on funds from foreign nationals of Indian origin living in the more prosperous countries of the world. India could have avoided this decision, which is based essentially on narrow short-term motivations.

A majority of the Indian community in the Gulf is unhappy with the decision regarding selective grant of dual citizenship.

Two other decisions announced also smack of ad-hocism and lack of reason. The “Pravasi Bharatiya Samman” was awarded to a number of persons of Indian origin. No doubt all the awardees are eminent in their respective spheres of achievement, but an award by the Indian government to a PIO should primarily be for activities by the individuals concerned that have served India’s cause or Indian interests.

PIOs, who might have established educational institutions in India or contributed to the social and developmental projects benefiting the people, should have been chosen for the honour. There is no rationale for conferring this award on persons like Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul who have lived all their lives abroad and whose only claim to the award was their international stature.

Then there is the decision to give facilities to children of PIOs to get admission in Indian technical and scientific institutions. This will be at the cost of Indian students who have to face tough competition to get admission to these institutions.

How justified is it to extend this facility to children of PIOs who are in any case well to do and live in countries where such facilities are available? The obvious reason behind the decision is to help children of PIOs who are not sure of making it to foreign institutions through competition.

Another question requiring an answer is the quantity and extent to which the Indian diaspora has contributed to India’s economic development in terms of investment, building of infrastructure or augmenting India’s economic growth.

Barring a few individual cases of NRIs building educational institutions in some places near their alma maters in India, one has not seen any significantly broad trend of NRIs and PIOs being involved in the building of India. Had there been some emerging trend over the last decade, the hoopla at the disapora conference here would have been justified.

Vast sections of PIOs even from North America and Western Europe — the major beneficiaries of the Pravasi Bharatiya exercise — had kept away from the conference and were critical of its proceedings as being a purely partisan exercise by the BJP.

It is a pity the government forgot Jawaharlal Nehru’s advice to the Indian communities abroad in the years following the country’s independence to integrate themselves fully with the people of the countries of their adoption, as their first loyalty should be to the country of their choice.

Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was in direct contradiction to those words of wisdom of Nehru.

(The writer is a former foreign secretary)

–Indo-Asian News Service

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