Now that the adrenalin rush triggered by the fiasco over Viswanathan Anand’s honorary degree has drained away, I’m wondering why we got so mad at babudom. It was normal for them to demand Anand’s passport, since they can’t have seen the millions of pictures showing him playing under the Indian flag. And it is normal for them to be suspicious of Indians living in Spain. Weren’t Abu Salem and Monica Bedi somewhere out there? Oh, was that Portugal? What’s the difference, they would want to know.
What was really embarrassing about the affair was not the bumbliness of babudom, which we’re accustomed to. Rather, it was the discovery that babus cannot distinguish between nationality and residency. They are happy to celebrate persons of Indian origin (PIOs) wherever they may be found, even when their relation to us is discernible only to genealogists. They fete foreign passport-holders like the literary curmudgeon VS Naipaul, whose links with India are lost in time. And they were quite taken by Sant Singh Chatwal, whose connections with us are so utterly twiggy that many invitees to his son’s wedding in Delhi had no idea why they were there. And when the government doggedly went ahead and gave him the Padma Bhushan this January, the uproar that followed showed that the public didn’t know why he was here either.
These are dreadful examples, I grant, but the government actually got it right here. The world’s populations have been churned for four centuries since the age of European exploration, which marked the beginning of the age of globalisation. The East India Company, the world’s first transnational corporation, created the biggest ever labour market, later known as the Commonwealth. The result was labour mobility on a scale not seen before or since, and whole families migrated halfway around the world. It’s too late now to try and make nationality the sole marker of identity.
Viswanathan Anand lives in Spain. So do thousands of British nationals of independent means. There are so many Brits out there that a dish called ‘bifstek’ features on every restaurant menu. Soon, India will share this fate, though perhaps minus the ‘bifstek’ on account of local sensitivities. Having a large population of resident foreign nationals is a routine feature of globalisation.
India already has hordes of foreign nationals who are de facto permanently resident in places identified with spirituality, wellness, social work, education, soft drugs or rave parties. But as India’s growth story progresses, more will come here to work, to teach and research, to pursue creative careers or to live out their retirement. They will exert a powerful effect on society and the economy, both stimulating them and competing with us for their fruits.
Are we ready for this, with our antiquated notions about us and them? Our governmental instincts in these matters are still rooted in the idea of nationality, though the great age of nationalism is over. But, as the public irritation at the fiasco over Anand’s degree showed, maybe the people are up to speed. This week, we are mighty pleased because four Indians have featured in Inc magazine’s list of America’s coolest young entrepreneurs. No one asked if they hold Indian passports. That’s a sign of mental health, I think.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine firstname.lastname@example.org The views expressed by the author are personal.