The author is professor of philosophy, law and governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The commencement of events celebrating the Indian diaspora in Delhi is evoking a heady mixture of sentimentalism and contempt. On the one hand, we are fascinated by the reach of India. The Indian diaspora has, in every sense of the term, made India truly available wherever you go in the world. On the other, the role of non-resident Indians in India itself is a matter of some debate. Are they our saviours' Or are NRIs, as the most authoritative expert on the political economy of the Indian diaspora, Devesh Kapur of Harvard, once put it, Non-Reliable Indians'
Even more complicated than the histories of the twenty odd million people that constitute the Indian diaspora is the complicated relationship India has with those who left its shores. The idea of an Indian diaspora is itself of recent vintage, but is increasingly becoming credible. The most read newspaper for Indians in America, India Abroad, effortlessly covers the fate of Indians from South Africa to Fiji, from the United States of America to west Asia, as if they were all one seamless entity, divided by their geographies, histories and passports, but united in their sympathies. In this construction, Indian becomes almost an ethnic term, a quality you cannot lose wherever you go; India, a kind of Mecca, a sacred geographical point that always orients you.
Much of this construction of a diasporic Indian identity is wishful thinking that barely disguises the cracks and fissures within it. The first wave of 19th-century emigration of Indian labour under the most trying circumstances was largely eclipsed from our consciousness, and still remains something of an embarrassment for those enthralled by the glamour of the more fortunate, the real NRIs — the professionals who have made the American Dream their own, or the knights who have conquered the English establishment.
The cultural impact of this wave of recent immigrants is enormous. They have come to define the structure of our desires, our sense of possibility and expectation. Among- st the middle class in places like Delhi, the saying goes that under NRI influence, there are now only two kinds of teenagers — those who want to go to America and those who want to bring it here. A distinguished civil servant was ruefully remarking in a seminar that in the Fifties when parents sent their children abroad their parting words were, “Come back as soon as possible.” Now their parting words are “Get us to America as soon as possible.” This is not a bad measure of the exalted status the NRI now enjoys.
We are fascinated by NRIs because they confirm our most cherished beliefs. “Look at the NRIs,” we say, “Aren’t they standing proof that Indians can do astonishingly well if they only get the right environment'” The NRI’s success acts as a kind of comforting theodicy: we are not to blame, only our system is. We could all become what we wished if only we were not trapped by, well, India. And herein lies the complex relationship between “Indians” and “India”. The NRIs have helped many Indians achieve a sense of self-respect. They are innovative, powerful, wealthy, have access to the highest echelons of power in Britain and America. They can even have a freer relationship with Indian culture.
While we in India are often trying to prove our status by distancing ourselves from our cultural surroundings, these NRIs can freely embrace Indian culture as their own. So the paradox, that the NRI becomes the true carrier of Indian culture, while his Indian counterpart is embarrassed by it. The NRI can thus be positioned as a saviour of Hinduism against the onslaughts of globalization, secularization and other assorted ills, while Hinduism is deemed to be in crisis within India. The NRI has made the shift from not only being an icon of our material desires, but also being a beacon of hope for Indian culture, and the most authentic manifestation of Indian nationalism. And thus the celebration of this Great Indian Diaspora.
As an ex-NRI, of course, I am vulnerable to the envy and resentment that we also feel on such occasions. Unlike most Indian emigrants, the ones you will see being felicitated over the next week or so were also the most privileged Indians. They got most of what this society has to offer, debt-free technical education to take just one random example, and they were the first to secede from the system. The Indian government is probably the only government that is giving NRIs more real privileges than Indians. Look at the extraordinary access NRIs get to corridors of power in India. Every state has made a commitment to speedier processing of NRI investments. This sounds like a good idea, but I just wonder why my investment woes do not deserve the same degree of attention as that enjoyed by foreign investment in general.
What’s special about NRI money' Sure NRIs buying Resurgent India Bonds allowed us to avoid a foreign exchange crisis when economic sanctions were imposed. But that was hardly an act of charity. Those deposits are getting rates of return unparalleled anywhere in the world. Sure NRIs might bring in investment. But NRI investment is less than 10 per cent of all foreign direct investment flows to India. This, incidentally, makes nonsense of the claim that the reason NRIs do not invest in India is because of difficult business conditions. This would explain low FDI in general, not why NRI investment should be an abysmal percentage of FDI flows.
There are of course remittances, of the order of twelve billion rupees per year. And these remittances are crucial for our fiscal health. But most of those who contribute to these remittances are not the ones you will see being felicitated this week. Most of those remittances come from regular workers. Very little of it comes from that class which leveraged its privileged position in India to even greater advantages abroad.
NRIs are undoubtedly a powerful strategic asset in many ways. They can be agents of profound economic transformation, and will provide crucial material and human links to allow India to cope with the challenges of globalization. Their success is astonishing and ought to be the occasion for celebration. Contrary to the popular image of all NRIs having been duped by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, many NRIs are models of a liberal conscience and have imbibed a profound sense of service. Felicitate them by all means. But sentimentalism should not obscure three things: first, the proclamation of an indivisible greater India, united by a sense of Indianness, will do very little to confront the profound fissures in India’s identity.
Second, we have to treat NRIs as assets, but scrutinize our gains and losses from them with cold economic and social logic, and not get carried away by the thought that we owe them everything. The supremely inept report of the Indian government’s commission on the Indian diaspora seems to be high on sentiment and low on analysis of just this sort. Finally, the respect for Indians that NRIs have undoubtedly created is not the same thing as respect for India itself. Indeed, we are paying homage to NRIs precisely because they have shown how to gain respect as Indians in a world where the possibility of India gaining respect is slim.