KOCHI, INDIA – No other country has anything like it – an annual jamboree of its diaspora, conducted with great fanfare by its government. India has been doing it, with great success, for a decade, timed to recall the return to India of the most famous Indian expatriate of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, who alighted from his South African ship in Bombay on January 9, 1915. As I write, the southern port city of Kochi is overflowing with expatriate Indians celebrating their connection to their motherland.
India is the only country that has an official acronym for its expatriates — NRIs, or “Non-Resident Indians.” In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the question is whether NRI should stand for “Not Really Indian” or “Never Relinquished India.”
Of course, the nearly 25 million people of Indian descent who live abroad fall into both categories. But the 1,600 delegates who flocked to Kochi from 61 countries for the eleventh Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Expatriate Indians’ Day) celebrations this month were firmly in the latter camp. They were in India to affirm their claim to it.
It was curiously appropriate that the event, organized by the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs (another unique Indian creation) in cooperation with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, took place in Kochi this year. After all, though the state of Kerala contains just 3% of the country’s population, it accounts for the largest number of Indians living and working abroad.