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Indian Diaspora in Africa

Geographically, India is connected with the African continent, therefore our cultural ties to the continent run deep. Relationships between India and Africa, especially in trade, can be traced back to the Ethiopian Aksumite Empire (100–940 AD). There were several reasons for these trade relationships and despite their geographical separation, these nations’ economies and social requirements were similar.  Also, the coast of the Horn of Africa was an important trading route between India, Egypt, and the Roman Empire and the periodic changes in the Indian monsoon made it easier for trade to occur. The western coast of India was the focal point of trade interactions and Indian merchants remained in majority of foreign businessmen in Ethiopia during most of the 19th century, and the Indian rupee was used as the official currency in various sections of Ethiopia. There are many reasons for Indian migration towards Africa at different times and purposes. For example, the Indian Diaspora during the colonial period in Africa was primarily indentured labourers brought by the British and French for construction work in East Africa for sugar plantations. Nevertheless, migration always carries socio-cultural heritage and protects their distinct identities.

The waves of Indian Diaspora in Africa can be broadly divided into four parts; Pre-colonial migration of Persons of Indian Origin towards Africa, during colonial time, Postcolonial time, and the present context. In pre-colonial times, Indian coastal communities developed good ties with East Africa, East Asia, and Central Asia. The ‘trade Diaspora’ was distinguished as it consisted mainly of ‘temporary’ and ‘circular’ migration. They were sent to look for trade elsewhere but expected to return to their motherland eventually. International trade allowed people from different cultures to learn about and appreciate one another. Many South Asian merchants began migrating outside Asia in the eighteenth century. The second phase of migration; into Africa by Indians came due to colonization. Significant clusters of Indians were taken as indentured labourers across the colonial empires in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is important to note that some Indians emigrated to serve colonial administrations abroad in the capacities of clerks and instructors, expanding the reach of colonial power. About 769,427 Indians are estimated to have emigrated to Mauritius, South Africa, Seychelles, and the East African area between 1829 and 1924. After numerous African nations became independent in the 1960s, many Indians in the professional classes served in Africa in countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria as instructors in schools and universities, railways, mines and hospitals. Such persons were not settlers but were seeking to put their skills toward creating personal financial security. Others saw opportunities in the African marketplace for entrepreneurism and acquired rapid fortunes in import trading.

In South Africa, where the number of Indian-origin persons is most prominent in the continent, the descendants of indentured labour became educated and upwardly mobile. They gained merit as doctors and lawyers during the freedom movement in defending the cause of African political prisoners. The number of Indians living overseas, known as the Indian Diaspora, has grown to 2, 710, 6545, according to the most recent estimates. People from India reside in 46 different African countries. Indians in Africa constitute 12.37 percent of all Indians who have moved away from India over time. The number of people from India who live in different parts of the continent varies greatly. For example, 70 percent of the people living in Mauritius are from the Indian Diaspora. In Nigeria, more than 800,000 Indians live and own about 100,000 businesses there.

Trade was the prominent reason for the Indian migration and brought cultural connection too. During the colonial period of the 19th century, British and French colonies brought Indians as indentured labor for railway construction work, and later, they became residents of the host countries. During the liberation of African countries, Indians supported Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi played a significant role in fight against racial discrimination in South Africa. Jawaharlal Nehru promoted the non-alignment movement and supported south-south cooperation with African leaders like Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah. Later, Nelson Mandela was a big supporter of the Indian Diasporas and when he became the first president of South Africa, he appointed several Indians to the South African parliament. Our cultural and art, historical and geographical linkage is the most prominent evidence for the close connection with Africa. Indian Diaspora communities play the most significant role in Africa regarding economic development and political transformation. Former Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia said that India and Africa are “two soulmates, friends, and partners.” Within the broader context of India’s adoption of a neoliberal economic policy framework in 1991, a new assertiveness to India’s Diaspora has emerged. Indian private businesses have been at the forefront of Africa’s economic boom in recent years, profoundly influencing how the Indian government sees its Diaspora.

India’s growing political and economic interests in Africa and Indian Diaspora would play big role to making robust partnership with the African countries and will also help to understand African current requirements and their cultural knowledge. Once every two years, the Indian Diaspora gathers for Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to renew links with their homeland and foster greater cooperation between the Indian government and the Diaspora. In addition, several initiatives, such as “Mission,” have been launched by the Indian government to re-establish communication between the Indian Diaspora in Africa with its motherland India. In the 21st century, existing international institutions have accelerated the unification of the world’s economies, societies, and cultures. The cultural and trade ties between India and Africa date back to over three thousand years and today through the links of diaspora the ties between the two countries have strengthened.