For most Indians, Switzerland remains a holiday destination or a backdrop for 1990s Bollywood song & dance sequences. English-speaking countries like the US, UK, Canada and Australia are what Indians associate with a life overseas. But the Alpine nation has slowly been carving a place for itself as an attractive destination for Indian migrants.
World-class universities, big banks and pharma companies, plethora of international organisations, and relatively high salaries make Switzerland an interesting niche destination. Not to mention the bragging rights of living somewhere that most Indians associate with paradise on earth (along with stunning but conflict-prone Kashmir of course).
The profile of the average Indian migrant in Switzerland has evolved over the past couple of decades. In 1980, there were a little over 2000 Indians in Switzerland. Most of them were either engineers in multinational companies or worked in international organisations in Geneva. Fast forward to 2014 and you have over 15,000 Indians studying, working and living in Switzerland. This new breed of immigrants is made up of skilled professionals, students and scientists from sectors like ICT, finance and management, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sciences.
Compared to other immigrant groups, the majority of Indians are short-term residents . Switzerland is often a pit stop in an international career or a short foreign assignment before returning home to India. Nearly half of all Indians with a tertiary education stay for less than five years in the country. This is also reflected in their immigration status, with the vast majority (almost 7,200) being annual residence (B) permit holders.
A third of all Indians live in canton Zurich, with Geneva, Basel and Vaud being other popular cantons. There are several Indian associations in Switzerland that promote cultural activities and celebrate festivals.
Switzerland’s reputation as a place to recover from ill health and recharge the batteries did not escape the notice of India’s movers and shakers.
Swami Vivekananda - who is credited with popularising Hinduism and Vedanta philosophy around the world - toured Switzerland for around three months in 1896.
“It is a miniature Himalayas, and has the same effect of raising the mind up to the Self and driving away all earthly feelings and ties,” he wrote in one of his letters that he sent from Saas Fee. A plaque and statue were installed in the town to commemorate his stay on the occasion of his 150th birth centenary celebrations in 2013.
Switzerland has also hosted another famous Indian guru. The great Indian yoga exponent B.K.S. Iyengar, is believed to have got his lucky break when world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin decided to meet him in Bombay in 1952 for a yoga lesson.
He was so impressed that he invited Iyengar to Switzerland in 1954 and introduced him to other musicians. At the end of the visit Menuhin presented Iyengar with a watch with “To my best violin teacher, BKS Iyengar" inscribed on the back.
Kamala Nehru, wife of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had tuberculosis and spent several months in Switzerland to improve her health in 1936. Their daughter and future prime minister Indira Gandhi, was schooled in the country during this period, where she picked up the French language and skiing.
“Her room here is large & spacious and has a balcony with a lovely view of the lake & mountains,” 19-year-old Indira Gandhi wrote to her father from Clinique Sylvana in Lausanne. A few days later Kamala Nehru passed away.
Switzerland was also final destination for freedom fighter Shyamji Krishna Verma who founded the Indian Socialist nationalist magazine in London in 1905. A thorn in the flesh of the British and an embarrassment to the French, he fled to Geneva in 1914 to avoid being extradited. He died there in 1930 and in 2003 his ashes were handed over to Narendra Modi (then chief minister of Gujarat state) and now rest in a dedicated memorial in Mandvi, Gujarat.