Many American commentators who have written about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US have noted how each of his public appearances was greeted with rapturous support from people of Indian origin who now live in the States.
In many ways, this phalanx of NRI supporters was Modi’s secret weapon. He came across not as an outsider visiting America but as a man who already commanded a considerable measure of powerful support within the US. And because NRIs are among the richest and best-educated ethnic groups in the US, their influence could not be easily ignored by American politicians.
In India however, the reaction to Modi’s Indian-American supporters was more ambivalent. You only had to look at social media during the PM’s visit to see how sneering some of the responses of resident Indians could be. When NRIs sang “Sare Jahan Se Achha Hindustan”, one cynic tweeted, “Then, come back, na!”
When they screened a short film before Modi’s Madison Square Garden speech about the sacrifices made by Indian-Americans, many resident Indians were annoyed by the notion that these ‘sacrifices’ basically consisted of how they scraped together enough money to get out of India.
Nor was this indignation restricted to trolls or Modi baiters. Sociologist and TV don Dipankar Gupta tweeted: “Very cute; Migrated willingly to USA, won’t come back & yet chiming “I love my India.” Is their India Real or Imagined? Ancient or Modern?” That one tweet was retweeted an astonishing 1,200 times because it so perfectly captured the mood of many indignant resident Indians.
India’s relationship with its diaspora has always been complex. We are proud of the prominence of large Indian-origin communities in Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji, the West Indies and East Africa. But few members of those communities hold Indian passports or claim any connection to India other than cultural (which usually means Bollywood). When Idi Amin expelled thousands of Indians from Uganda in the early 1970s only a small number opted to come to India. Most went first to the UK, and then on to North America and other places.
We are more willing to regard Indians who live in West Asia as full-fledged Indians. We believe that they are migrant workers or professionals who do not identify (or are not allowed to identify) with the countries they live in. Most intend to return to India someday and in the meantime, their remittances back home add to our foreign exchange reserves.
The only area where ambiguity exists is in our attitude to Indians (or people of Indian origin) who live in Western Europe and the US. Many of them have surrendered their Indian passports (which is why Modi told a cheering New York crowd that he would give them long-term visas), want their children to settle in their adopted countries and do not necessarily dream of returning to India.
India came to terms with this phenomenon only in the 1980s (when the term “NRI’’ came into vogue) because ethnic Indians in the US and UK began growing in affluence and influence. Since then, NRIs have become a part of our cultural and economic landscape. The government launched schemes to encourage NRIs to invest in India and Bollywood discovered that it had a natural audience across the oceans. Thirty years before Modi got there, Amitabh Bachchan had already packed out Madison Square Garden with his NRI fans and there is a whole sub-genre of Hindi cinema dedicated to the NRI market.
We now think of political NRIs as BJP-supporters. But in the 1980s, it was overseas branches of the Congress that welcomed Rajiv Gandhi to the US. And successive governments of all parties have used NRIs to lobby for India. For instance, it was NRI tycoons who persuaded Tony Blair to meet AB Vajpayee’s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra to break the chill that followed India’s nuclear tests. And American NRIs routinely lobby senators and Congressmen on India’s behalf.
So, why the sudden ambivalence and hostility? Well, it is not new. Whenever NRIs are seen as a threat, they begin to be perceived more cynically. In 1983 when Swraj Paul tried to take over Escorts and DCM, Indian industry banded together to defeat him. Later that decade, when the likes of Manu Chhabria used the NRI scheme to gain control of such large companies as Shaw Wallace, they were treated as criminals.
One reason why NRIs are being seen as a threat again is because so many of them have become active (and frequently, abusive) on social media, usually in support of the Sangh parivar and often against India’s minorities. Many resident Indians are annoyed enough to ask, as Dipankar Gupta did on Twitter, how US citizens can have any stake in the future of India. Do they even understand today’s India? Or are they fantasising about some imaginary ancient India? And besides, if they care so much about this country, then why don’t they just come back home?
These are not unreasonable questions. And the short answer has to be that yes, many NRIs demand the luxury of broadcasting reactionary views from the safety of their New Jersey homes.
But there is also an important counter question to be asked: why not? If we want them to watch our movies and support our interests abroad, then can we really complain when they use new media to air views that some of us may find primitive and ugly?
The answer, I suspect, is that we need to rethink our idea of India. As the diaspora spreads and grows in influence, it will become a more important contributor to Indian political discourse (and abuse). Technology knows no borders. And as social media helps the voices of the diaspora to be heard louder and louder here, we’ll just have to accept that the 21st century avatar of the idea of India also knows no territorial boundaries.
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