NRIs are a pampered lot. Even though they have taken up foreign citizenship they have their own minister, their own annual day and many other privileges. But does this special status give them the right to interfere in the affairs of India. If they do interfere does it matter? In Britain recently I came across two groups of NRIs who are trying to interfere and I believe their interference should concern Indians back home.
On the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar I found myself trying to inject some balance and reason into a radio-phone in discussing that incident. Agitated British Sikhs who are attempting to get the British government to demand a United Nations inquiry into the events of 1984 denied that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had committed any wrong. On the contrary several Sikhs who phoned-in were surprised I didn’t believe that the government had been planning Operation Bluestar for some time as a deliberate attack on their community. They even made the bizarre allegation that the drug problem in Punjab had been created by the government, claiming that the state has been deliberately “flooded with drugs” so that young Sikh men would fall victim to drug-addiction rather than revive the Khalistan movement.
During the phone-in Lord Singh of Wimbledon, editor of the influential Sikh Messenger and a regular contributor to the BBC’s influential Today programme, supported the demand for a UN inquiry, and Britain’s only Sikh MP, Paul Uppal, agreed to discuss it with the government.
The second interference in Indian affairs by NRIs was an attempt by 75 academics, most of Indian origin, judging by their names, teaching in British or other foreign universities, to influence the outcome of the recent general elections. In their letter published in the Independent, a national daily, the academics expressed “deep concern at the implications of a Narendra Modi-led government for democracy, pluralism, and human rights in India”. Academics are expected to be balanced but this letter was wholly one-sided. The academics recalled the “extreme violence by the Hindu right in Gujarat in 2002” but they didn’t mention the findings of the Special Investigation Team set up by the Supreme Court. They condemned Modi as authoritarian and described his economic model as being linked to big business and “harmful to the poor”. They didn’t examine the other side of the argument about the Gujarat model, nor did they mention that Modi had won three assembly elections and therefore the people of his state, who are the people on the ground, would appear to judge his performance rather differently from the academics living outside India.
There is an element of irresponsibility in expatriates publicly taking up extreme positions on what is happening in their own country. There is an air of condescension about the academics’ letter also. It smacks of that assumption of superiority that I sometimes note among NRIs — the assumption that because they are successful in a country like Britain or America they are superior to those who have stayed behind.
Unless NRIs raising concerns about India are measured and responsible, they contribute to widespread misunderstanding about India in the countries where they live. On a recent radio interview I had to defend India’s space programme against the naive argument that the money would be better spent on the poor. This argument ignores the technology that India gains from its space programme and other advanced scientific research. If NRIs in Britain want to justify the special status they enjoy in India they should correct these misunderstandings rather than contribute to them by irresponsible interference in its affairs. If they don’t, India might well ask why it grants them those privileges.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)