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The Indian Diaspora

By Dinesh Dhamija

by Keerat

Dinesh Dhamija, Founder – Ebookers@dinesh_dhamija


At a time when India is breaking records for the growth of its population and economy – here’s another. There are more than 18 million people of Indian origin living outside the country, a far higher number than any other nation.

Russia and Mexico have the next highest diasporas, with 11 million each, followed by China with 10 million. But so what if millions of Indians live elsewhere? Doesn’t it mean that conditions were so poor that they had to leave?

That may have been the cause of much migration in the past: millions of Indians settled outside the country in the 19th and early 20th century as labourers, many of them under ‘indentured’ contracts where they had to work for a set period, often five years, with little freedom.

Countries like Fiji, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago accepted hundreds of thousands of such workers, replacing slave populations following abolition in 1831. They typically worked on sugar plantations and assimilated so deeply into their host cultures that they now make up large percentages of the population.

In Fiji it’s 34 per cent, in Trinidad and Tobago 35 per cent and in Guyana 39 per cent. There followed waves of emigration in the 20th century as wars displaced populations and work opportunities opened up.



The UK, Canada and the United States welcomed millions of Indians after World War II, particularly after the US relaxed its immigration laws in 1965. At first many of these migrants worked in blue-collar jobs.

In the UK the archetypical profession was bus driver or textile mill worker. But as the population grew and matured, second and third-generation Indians focused on education and professional training. Today the average Indian in America, Canada or the UK is better educated, better paid and wealthier than the average white person.

In the mid-20th century, mass immigration from the Indian states of Gujarat and Punjab into Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – which were under British rule – created a situation where Indians ran successful businesses, with sometimes favourable treatment by the British.

After these countries gained independence, conditions for the Indian population worsened, to the point in Uganda where the dictator Idi Amin expelled thousands of families. Some returned to The Indian Century 19 India, but many moved on to the UK, Canada and the United States, where they continued running prosperous businesses, often in retail.

In country after country, this same pattern applied: Indians are hard-working, commercially astute, determined to educate themselves and their children, and civic-minded to the point that many become political and community leaders.

There are now Indian-heritage politicians leading the UK, Scotland, Ireland and Portugal; others have led Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. If you look at a list of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies, an incredible number of them in recent years have had CEOs of Indian heritage. Google, Microsoft, Pepsi, Mastercard, Diageo, Nokia, Adobe… the list goes on.


It’s a 21st century phenomenon, and it’s symptomatic of a global rise in the status of Indian technocrats. In the United States, Indians’ average household income is $150,000 a year, compared with $65,000 overall and $58,000 among Chinese-born households. According to the latest figures, there are 25 chief executives of Indian descent in the S&P 500, compared with 11 in 2013.

Members of the diaspora are more often college educated, they work hard and contribute to society. Almost 80 per cent of the Indian-born population living in the US has an undergraduate degree, compared with 50 per cent of Chinese-born people and 30 per cent of the total population.

The same high ratios apply to those educated at India’s foremost colleges. Of the 100 best-performing students at the elite Indian engineering schools in the 2010s, 62 per cent migrated overseas, mostly to America.

In 2022, 73 per cent of the H1-B American visas granted to skilled workers in ‘speciality occupations’ – for example computer scientists – were granted to Indian-born migrants. In the UK, 74 per cent of Indians own their own home, compared with 68 per cent of white British people and 59 per cent of the overall Asian population.

In education, 62 per cent of Indian High School students get grade 5 and above in English and Maths, compared with 42 per cent of white British pupils, and 96 percent of Indian students continue on to further education, compared with 85 percent of white British students.


Many Indian companies have also done incredibly well recently, so it’s not just those who have left the country: Reliance Industries’ market cap is close to a trillion dollars, with Tata Consultancy Services and HDFC Bank well over $500 The Indian Century 20 billion each. But despite this, for most Indians, the pot of gold remains very small in India, compared with what they can aim for elsewhere.

For decades now, Indians have spotted that the rewards were largest in the United States and headed over there. For me, the east and west coasts of US are fine, but I’d never want to live there, especially in the mid-West, where levels of education are often low and there’s a lack of culture. Indians are by nature and by circumstances very entrepreneurial people.

They have to be, since there’s virtually no welfare safety net. They have to get off their haunches and do something if they want to make any money. And it’s a very young population – 60 per cent of the country is under 35. If you look back 300 years, India was the wealthiest country in the world, earning 23 per cent of global GDP.

Once the East India Company gained control of the country in the early 18th century, the wholesale rape of the country began and continued for 250 years until independence in 1947, when India represented 3 per cent of global GDP.



The ‘master-servant’ relationship with Britain didn’t work out very well for India. What I like is being part of the Indian community in England. It’s something that I’ve become closer to in recent years. When I was a student and starting out in business, I kept the Indian community at arm’s length: I wanted to make it on my own terms, building an international enterprise rather than selling to a specific group.

After selling ebookers.com, I spent more time working with TiE, short for The Indus Entrepreneurs, which supports and promotes (mainly) Asian entrepreneurs all around the world, including London. I was president of TiE London from 2014 to 2017 and built it up from just a handful of members to 83 by the time I stepped down.

We got some great speakers to come along, like Manish Madhvani, senior partner at GP Bullhound, the leading European technology bank which spotted eight unicorns [companies with a valuation above $1 billion] and invested early.

We had Luke Johnson, who built Pizza Express from 12 restaurants to 250, and the Indian yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos and has 25 million followers. After that, I became a trustee of TiE’s global board in Silicon Valley for a couple of years, and then became vice chair of the organisation worldwide, putting in a few words here and there.

While Indian men focus on business in the United States, a number of Indian heritage women have risen up the political ranks and achieved prominence. On the Republican side, Donald Trump appointed Nikki Haley Ambassador to the United Nations in 2016 and she remains in line for the Republican nomination for president at the time of writing, while for the Democrats, Kamala Harris became a Californian senator in 2017 and then Joe Biden’s Vice President in 2022.

Indians have succeeded across business and politics in the UK too: the Hindujas and the Mittals are among the wealthiest families in the country; Rishi Sunak is Prime Minister, Suella Braverman is Home Secretary, Lisa Nandy is Shadow Foreign Secretary and Sadiq Khan, whose family is from Pakistan, is Mayor of London.


Such a spread of wealth and power was unthinkable a generation ago. In 2023 there are in total 19 people of Indian heritage in the House of Commons, six in the Australian parliament and five in the US Congress. Ajay Banga, from Pune in western India, was appointed head of the World Bank in May 2023 and the deans of three of the top five business schools in the US are of Indian descent.

My roles in business and politics put me at the centre of both of these worlds, something I’m very grateful to have experienced. Although my achievements weren’t the direct result of support from fellow Indian businesspeople or politicians, the fact that Indians are now very widely accepted in positions of great trust and responsibility means that my path was made slightly easier, just as I hope to have made the path easier for future generations of Indians as they make their way through life.

Certainly, the fact that so many Indians are educated in the West, as I was, helps us to progress. In the United States, only 22 per cent of Indian immigrants admit that they struggle with the English language, compared with 57 per cent of Chinese immigrants.

This disparity is symptomatic of a wider chasm between the way Indians and Chinese have assimilated in the west. As The Economist outlined in a report on India’s diaspora:

“Understanding how and why Indians have triumphed abroad, whereas Chinese have tended to sow suspicion, illuminates geopolitical faultlines.”


The report noted that, as America appears set on a new cold war with China, they are framing China as an enemy. The Covid-19 pandemic, which began in China, is a contributory factor, along with the spy-balloon saga in early 2023 and reports of a Chinese eavesdropping station in Cuba. A recent survey found that 84 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of China, compared with just 27 per cent for India.

By contrast, the warmth of the US-Indian relationship is quite dramatic. The flow of high skilled immigrants, the connections through digital technology, the defence cooperation all lead to new conclusions, far from the detachment of the 20th century.

“This is a relationship which has support in the [Indian] street,” says Subrahmanayam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister. “And that’s not always the case with the United States, nowadays. It’s a popular relationship. And I think there’s an enormous tailwind that is propelling us forward.”


If we try to distil what it is in the Indian character or historic gene pool that makes the race such successful migrants, there are a few theories. Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, who himself was born in London and has lived in the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, believes that familiarity with the English language is one factor, a legacy of two centuries of British rule in India. But he argues that tough economic and social conditions in their home country play a more important role.

“Emigrants have grown up without taking affluence for granted,” he wrote, in a paper published shortly after Rishi Sunak’s appointment as British Prime Minister in 2022, “overcoming adversities such as limited resources, heavy-handed government regulation, and bureaucratic inertia. Most have either experienced deprivation or witnessed enough of it to try and escape it.

They have ‘fire in the belly’ that many in the West, raised in freer, more affluent environments, may have lost.” He adds that India’s huge diversity of cultures, languages and religions means that they are accustomed to adapting to new environments and easily able to work in multicultural, multinational businesses.

Democracy means that Indian-born workers possess initiative, critical thinking and free expression alongside respect for hierarchy. It means that Indians are seen as “Original and creative, but ‘safe’, rather than threatening or revolutionary – a combination that facilitates their acceptance in their new societies and their ascent within firms.”

Tharoor picks up on Rishi Sunak’s elevation to British Prime Minister as the most profoundly important event in recent Indian diaspora history. It sparked celebrations across India, he notes, as a country that dominated India for so many years as a colonial power puts a “brown-skinned devout Hindu” in charge.

“Sunak seems to embody the aspirations and values of many Indians who celebrate him as a poster boy for the ‘New India’,”


writes Tharoor,

with his emphasis on education and learning (Sunak studied at Oxford University in the UK and at Stanford in the States), close-knit families (he married Akshata Murty, daughter of Infosys billionaire Narayana Murthy and the couple have two daughters) and a strong work ethic (he was a waiter in an Indian restaurant as a young man).

There is a delicious irony in Rishi Sunak, as a leader of Indian heritage, negotiating with Scottish National Party Humza Yousaf, of Pakistani heritage, over the potential partition of Britain, 76 years after the British partition of India.

Contrary to India’s mass emigration being a negative for the country, as you might imagine, it has proved to be deeply beneficial. Recent thinking on diasporas around the world backs this up. A United Nations study from 2020 decided that



“Diasporas play an important role in the development of their countries of origin by promoting foreign investment, trade, innovation, access to technology The Indian Century 24 and financial inclusion.”

They bring back their experience and knowledge, create jobs and help to fund their old countries’ economic growth. This is absolutely true of India. Its diaspora of 18 million, of whom I am one, are generally very well integrated into our host countries, yet we retain a strong attachment to Mother India.

In my case, I return several times a year to visit my mother, now well into her 90s, as well as my brother and other relatives and friends. Even if I didn’t have relatives, I’d be drawn to spend time in the land of my ancestors, which has played such a huge role in my life and upbringing.

Political leaders back home in India are well aware of the potential for the country’s diaspora to work in their favour. In April 2023, Union Minister Jitendra Singh came to London to address a conference of IT businesspeople, aiming to promote Anglo-Indian collaboration.

“The world is looking up to the Indian diaspora with great hope and expectation and it is high time that they also rise to the occasion and contribute to the well-being of humankind,”


he said, adding they should “channelise their resources to support the important initiatives taken up by the government back home in India.”

Having this 18 million-strong army of supporters spread across the globe, from 4.5 million in the United States, 4.1 million in Saudi Arabia, 3.4 million in the UAE, down to just one person in the Federated States of Micronesia, will give India an enormous financial and political advantage over its superpower rivals in the decades to come.

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