Diaspora Nationalism: The Myth and the Reality

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

One of the more welcome developments of recent times is the gradual fading away of what has been dubbed “diaspora nationalism”. This is the unpleasant phenomenon in which people living in foreign countries advocate, finance, and often arm nationalist movements in the countries they have left, often out of a nostalgic longing for an idealized homeland they have been forced to abandon.

We in India are all too familiar with this: the fringe movement for a Sikh state (‘Khalistan’) in India was sustained almost entirely by financing from North American Sikhs. Next door, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Europe (and particularly the UK) kept Tamil nationalism alive in the island-state for decades. But the phenomenon has been a global one. Jewish nationalism was for millennia a dream sustained in exile, until the creation of Israel in 1948. The Irish in America were extensively involved in supporting Irish nationalism, and the movement for an Oromo nation to be carved out of Ethiopia was so completely sustained by the diaspora that it is even suggested that the very notion of Oromo nationalism was, for all practical purposes, invented by its expatriates.


Very often, diasporas preserve ideas, practices, beliefs, and rituals long after they have faded away or been transformed in their original homelands—thus New York is famously home to languages that have become virtually extinct in their original countries. Financial transfers can sometimes be benign, in the form of remittances to families at ‘home’, as a token of care and responsibility for relatives, not necessarily nativist meddling in the politics of abandoned homelands. Still, when diasporas act out of nationalist motivations, their impulsions are usually political, and often radical. And they can be more: what the scholar Benedict Anderson has called ‘long- distance nationalism’ can kill people in faraway homelands.

Members of the Indian diaspora outside Victorian parliament in Melbourne (Fie Photo| PTI)

Most of the contemporary world’s emigrants are people who left their countries in quest of material improvement, looking for financial security and professional opportunities that, for one reason or another, they could not attain in their own lands. Many of them left intending to return: a few years abroad, a few more dollars in the bank, they told themselves, and they would come back to their own hearths, triumphant over the adversity that had led them to leave. But the years kept stretching on, and the dollars were never quite enough, or their needs mounted with their acquisitions, or they developed new ties (career, spouse, children, schooling) to their new land, and then gradually the realization seeped in that they would never go back. And, with this realization, often only half-acknowledged, came a welter of emotions: guilt, at the abandonment of the motherland, mixed with rage, that the motherland had somehow—through its own failings, political, economic, social—forced them into this abandonment. The attitude of this kind of expatriate to his homeland is that of the faithless lover who blames the woman he has spurned for not having sufficiently merited his fidelity.

That is why the support of extremism at home is doubly gratifying: it appeases the expatriate’s sense of nationalist guilt at not being involved in his homeland, and it vindicates his decision to abandon it. (If the homeland he has left did not have the faults he detests, he tells himself, he would not have had to leave it.)

But that is not all. The expatriate also desperately needs to define himself in his new society. He is reminded by his mirror, if not by the nationals of his new land, that he is not entirely like them. In the midst of racism and alienation, second-class citizenship, and self-hatred, he needs an identity to assert—a label of which he can be proud, yet which does not undermine his choice of exile. He has rejected the reality of his country but not, he declares fervently, the essential nationalist values he has derived from his roots.

As his children grow up ‘American’ or ‘British’, as they slough off the assumptions, prejudices, and fears of his own childhood, he becomes even more assertive about them. But his nationalist nostalgia is based on the selectiveness of memory; it is a simplified, idealized recollection of his roots, often reduced to their most elemental—family, caste, region, religion. In exile amongst foreigners, he clings to a vision of what he really is that admits no foreignness.

But the tragedy is that the culture he remembers, with both nostalgia and rejection, has itself evolved—in interaction with others—on its national soil. His perspective distorted by exile, the expatriate extremist knows nothing of this. His view of what used to be home is divorced from the experience of home. The expatriate is no longer an organic part of the culture, but a severed digit that, in its yearning for the hand, can only twist itself into a disfigured approximation of a clenched fist.

Fortunately, as expatriation matures, the intensity of such remembered allegiance fades. Today our diaspora means mainly the hard- working, mostly blue-collar Indians in the Gulf, who work abroad because of the financial vistas it opens to them but whose allegiance remains firmly tied to their homeland, and to the families there whom they support with their remittances. Their nationalism is far from radical; it is anchored in the familiar comforts of the homes they sustain through their labours.

The 21st century has encouraged the evolution of other forms of diaspora. There are the ‘flexibles’ who travel cheerfully back and forth between “home” and “abroad”, managing to lead dual lives as Indians and expatriates at the same time. There are the transnational professionals whose jobs place them in Singapore one year, in Sydney the next, and San Francisco three years later, but who have no sense whatsoever of having abandoned Sangrur or Simla in the process.

Theirs is not diaspora nationalism, but a sort of trans-nationalism. The allure of “Khalistan” collapses in the face of the real existence of Punjab, where you can visit, holiday, invest and even marry. Why finance rebellion when you can enjoy your homeland with a PIO card?

About the Author

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a third-term Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, chairs Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology

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