NRIs from Tamil Nadu make up a good chunk of the Indian diaspora living overseas. The Tamil NRI diaspora consists of people who have emigrated both from Tamil Nadu and the Tamil speaking areas of adjacent states to other countries that did not have any Tamilian influence or population to do so.
During the period when India was colonised by the British, French and Dutch, among other European countries, many Indians, along with a sizeable number of Tamilians, were recruited to work in overseas colonies as labourers and also in a clerical and military capacity.
In the early 19th century, the then Madras Presidency (to which Tamil Nadu belonged) suffered from crippling famines. The famine left the region economically weak.
The British shipped Tamil workers to their other plantations across the world. These migrants settled in locations such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, South Africa and even places as far-flung as Fiji and Trinidad.
Most, if not all, of these migrants, mingled with the local population and imbibed their customs and rituals.
Certain groups of Tamilians even emigrated for economic reasons. Among them were the Chettiyars, Pillais and Muslims. These groups dominated trade and finance in their newly adopted countries.
Tamilians from the French colonies of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and Karaikal settled in the French-speaking part of the world, particularly in France, Seychelles and the Reunion Islands and the Caribbean Islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The second half of the 20th century saw many Tamils leave the state’s shores and find employment as skilled professionals in countries such as the UAE, USA, Singapore and the European continent. The total number of Tamils who migrated was approximately 3.5 million.
The island nation of Singapore is home to around 600,000 people of Tamil origin. The Tamil population of Singapore was bifurcated along the lines of those who moved during the colonial times and those who moved in the latter half of the 20th Century. Their dialects and customs are quite different.
Singapore has emerged as one of the most preferred destinations along with Malaysia for migrants from Tamil Nadu. Alongside English, Mandarin, and Malay, the Tamil language is recognised as one of the four official languages adopted by the Government of Singapore. The island nation has its own Tamil newspaper and radio station.
In the United States, as per the 2010 census, there are around 300,000 people who identify themselves as Tamilians. Most of them happen to be centred around the New Jersey area.
There are pockets of the Tamilian community in New York City, the Washington Metropolitan Area, and even as far west as the Silicon Valley.
Over a million migrants from Tamil Nadu call the Middle Eastern region home. About 450,000 of them hail from the United Arab Emirates and work in many sectors of the economy. South Indian festivals from Tamil Nadu, such as Pongal and Tamil New Year, are celebrated with gusto by the Tamil population.
Australia is also fast becoming a favourite destination for people choosing to emigrate from Tamil Nadu. Indians comprise the largest demographic of migrants to move to Australia, comprising 15% of the total population.
In 2011-12, India became the largest source of permanent migration to Australia, forming 15.7% of the total migration programme. According to the census carried out in 2011, there were approximately 50,000 Australians who identified themselves as Tamil.
Even though this modern-day Tamil diaspora eventually got citizenship in their adoptive countries, they maintained their familial and cultural ties to the state, unlike those who migrated during the British and French rule and lost their ancestral links to India over time.