Hundreds of NRIs descended on Bombay on 7 January. That was slightly irregular, for the BJP government had fixed 9 January as the Travelling Indians' Day (TID); that was the day in 1915 on which Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. But this was a conclave of important NRIs, who found it more convenient to meet over a weekend; hence 7-9 January. It was the third Bharatiya Pravasi Diwas ' more precisely, three days.
The meeting received front-page coverage because the President and the Prime Minister addressed it; but as happens with anything that goes on for too long, the comments on it were rather tired and unenthusiastic. But that was, I think, because outsiders see only the worthies' pontification ' and journalists only stay for it. Actually, despite the organizers' best efforts, the TID does attract some interesting speakers sometimes. I have only just caught up with the proceedings of the first TID; here are some nuggets.
It all started in August 2000, when the foreign ministry appointed a high-level committee on the Indian diaspora headed by the Hon Dr Lakshmi Mal Singhvi, Advocate General to Indira Gandhi's government from 1970 till 1977, and High Commissioner to Britain from 1991 till 1997. It recommended that customs areas at airports should be equipped with surveillance cameras to deter customs officials from asking for bribes, that Indian girls should be counselled before marrying NRIs, and that Indian banks should not give fraudulent loans to their favourites out of deposits placed by NRIs. As is normal, these recommendations did not cut much ice. But a TID struck a chord with the government, and the first one was held in 2003 with FICCI as sponsor. To keep out Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, only Indians who emigrated after Republic Day, 1950, were to be considered NRIs.
At the TID 2003 conference, Singhvi said, 'I hope and pray that Providence will bless this propitious beginning for a fascinating journey of this fruitful exploration and endeavour, and in the years to come we will look upon it as the starting point of a consecrated and purposeful new pilgrimage of this kindled togetherness of the global Indian family.' This style of English was the norm in the nineteenth century; today it is so rare that its masters should be preserved in aspic.
And Murli Manohar Joshi, the HRD minister, said, 'We have now an India innovation fund i.e., that those who innovate. They may be educated or they may not be educated. They may be having any degree or not having any degree, but if they have something to offer, something unique, something, which can be commercialized, something that can be widely used. We will help them. And we have very good experience. In the very first year we received about a 1000 applications, but in the next year we received about 13,000 or 14,000 applications. Some of these grass root technologies we have transferred to South Africa where our illiterate dropouts were carried to South Africa. And there they stayed in the villages and improved their life, improved their technologies. That is a very wonderful experience, which we had with this program where our ordinary common folk people tried to solve their problem through their own indigenous talents and ultimately their solutions turned out to be highly beneficial.' As often happens with important people, Joshi had obviously come without a prepared speech, and he regurgitated what he remembered from the last meeting he had attended. Maybe he had had the experience of the British minister who used to read out speeches written by his flunkeys and then show his dissatisfaction. So once, when he was giving a speech, he read out the first page, and then turned the page to find one with just one sentence: 'Now you are on your own, Minister!'
Speaking late in the conference, Sir Vidia Naipaul began, 'Well, I am slightly at a loss because in the short time I have been here I have heard so many of the same things again and again and what is worst from my point of view, they have anticipated many of the things I was going to say and I have had to recast very quickly my thoughts about this matter. I know that this occasion has the element of the trade fair, I think very much one is aware of that as one entered this building today; and the idea of money and commercial success of the recent Indian emigrants to the United States and Europe may be the driving force of this gathering and so it should be because without economic success there can be nothing; without economic success there is kind of cultural degradation and failure very often.' Gathering his wits, he talked about Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who offered his collection of 900 ancient paintings to Safdarjung Museum in Hyderabad and then to Benares Hindu University. Both rejected his offer, and it went to Boston Institute of Fine Arts. The lesson he drew was: 'We should rather turn the barbs a little sometimes on ourselves to find out why we have failed historically, why the great Indian civilization of South East Asia collapsed, why the Dutch had to re-build Parambalam, why those buildings, beautiful things like Parambalam and Borambadur had been allowed to fall into decay. We have to understand this. We have to develop a true sense of history and we must stop blaming the British for everything.'
Professor Amartya Sen said, 'The great Sanskrit grammarian, certainly the greatest in Sanskrit, possibly the greatest grammarian in any language, Panini, was actually an Afghan. He describes in his own life history. He describes himself as Shalaturia Upakubhya from the village of Shalatur on the banks of Kuha, the river Kabool.' In another illustration of India as an open society, he said, 'Kumarajeeva himself, is an example of a mixture. He was half-Turkish half-Indian, went to China, headed the foreign languages institute, translated about 70 books one of which was the Vadrachedika Karnaparamika often known in English as the Diamond Sutra. That was the first printed book in the 9th century in China.' In conclusion, he said, 'I think if we celebrate being Indians, which I do and I think all of you do, I think it is not that we see ourselves as a kind of flourishing Kupamanduka, a well-frog confined to a little well but a culture, a civilization, a people that has soared in the world, interacted with the world and not been afraid of interaction. It is the openness, external openness, and internal openness, in dialogue, openness in every sphere of life. That, I think, we celebrated as Indians. That is the reason why I would like to say, if I were asked the question what am I most proud of to be Indian ' and I am very proud of being an Indian ' it is the openness of our heritage and our culture; and we have to defend it, celebrate it, value it and fight for it.'
So maybe it is not such a bad idea to have a TID every year. In between the interminably boring speeches of ministers and prime ministers, the innumerable whiskies and the insufferable parties, there will once in a while be fifteen minutes of edification and entertainment.