The Non-Redundant Indian

5 May

This piece was originally published in this month’s issue of India Currents magazine.


As a keen follower of Indian politics and the upcoming national elections, and someone who is very active on social media year-round, I have lately been confronted by an interesting phenomenon: The tendency of resident Indians to a) diss NRIs and render them irrelevant by virtue of not residing in the country anymore, and b) actively criticize and debar them from having an opinion about their home country. The logic: You left, therefore you have no right to a voice. So that you understand exactly what I mean, here is a sampling of comments about non-resident Indians by people ostensibly living in India:

NRI types who would go out on a limb for foreign citizenship are the first to invoke patriotism.” (This tweet has been retweeted 15 times and favorite 4 times, so clearly others share this sentiment.)

No one will give you more concerned perceptive and farsighted advises (sic) on how India should be ruled than a NRI who has no plans to return ever!” (7 retweets and 6 favorites.)

All these NRI types vote for Modi, they’re the ones funding him, and we’re left to suffer.” (125 comments on Facebook, of which 83 were in agreement with the sentiment.)

Nasty comments and raging debates on Facebook apart, I and several of my fellow NRIs sense a thinly-veiled resentment directed toward us. Past what may or may not be jealousy of about perceived better living standards, or a residual sense of abandonment, there is the not-so-subtle accusation of betrayal and it scowls “You left.”

Let’s get some basic facts first: Of the 22 million Indians living outside India, at least 10 million still hold an Indian passport. Remittances to India totaled to $70 billion at last count, amounting to 4% of the country’s GDP. Yes, NRIs fund political parties they believe in. And yet, how many Indians in India do you know who would do the same? If you think being an NRI is all political money talk, think again: more than 50% of the funding for India’s top education nonprofit comes from the US, Indians abroad work beyond their full time jobs to actively volunteer for causes back home that range from education to disability to maternal health issues. I am likely to be an exception in that I volunteer for no less than 4 nonprofits working in India. But working right alongside me are Indians who have been here anywhere between 5 and 35 years. Those who form part of the “stop complaining and get it done brigade”. Those who put their money where their mouth is and ensure that millions can access the basic rights that we enjoy in our new countries—ones that successive governments have failed to provide Indians. For this, we are not even given our basic right to vote through consulates, and have to either spend on flying ourselves down to do it— a very expensive proposition, and not always logistically possible—or watch in silence as our country goes to polls and our voices are deemed irrelevant.

I have been on both sides of this apparent divide. As someone who has spent 5-year chunks of time in the US and then India and now the US again, I have been witness to plenty of non-resident Indians and Indian non-residents, a term I used to describe the many people encountered who complain loudly about the state of affairs, won’t move a finger to change them, and, while physically present in the country, won’t even bother to visit a polling booth. “What’s going to change,” I am defiantly asked, and labeled a sentimental fool for hoping.

When it comes to chowing down the latest New Zealand rack of lamb recipe that costs the equivalent of the working class’ monthly paycheck or going berserk at the Zara sale, plenty of Indians will be the first to declare that with the world going global now, it doesn’t matter where we live. Why then this discrimination against those who choose for whatever reason to live away from their homeland? Our money is gladly accepted, Indian-origin celebrities and achievers are proudly touted by the motherland as one of their own, but when it comes to having an opinion about the country we grew up in, we’re suddenly pariahs? It is all very convenient to declare oneself a global citizen and then deny a fellow Indian the right to a voice about his/her country based on their location—rest assured it reeks of hypocrisy.

One argument against non-resident Indians is that we are unaware of the ground realities by virtue of being physically removed from them. This is certainly true of some part of the NRI population. It is also equally true of some part of the resident Indian population. But in this age of global connectivity, instant news updates, round-the-clock media, and Twitter frenzy, the premise does not hold true anymore. Gone are the days when we would land in India after a span of several years, only to find we were serious misfits and the country of our birth was unrecognizable to us. More than ever, with the first generation Indian migrant population ballooning, especially in places like Silicon Valley, service providers, both Indian and local, have worked toward bringing the land into our homes on a daily basis. Our passports are perceived as unavoidable inconveniences, temporary pit-stops on the way to other colored ones, and our very nationality is questioned for our audacity in getting on a plane out of the country.

Over the last decade, there have been waves of NRIs returning to their home country, not just to visit, but to establish roots and make a life where they started theirs. There are others who divide their time between lands. Whether we choose to return or stay on, our cultural and emotional connection is, believe it or not, stronger than the iron-clad US immigration system, and no, we don’t all come down in droves every December to whine about smog and dug-up footpaths and the myriad failures of state that seem to especially embarrass you in our presence. Our ties to India are primarily emotional. Almost all first-generation Indians still have some family there, and, as is human, we worry about their safety, comfort, and peace, as they worry about ours each time there is a mass threat. The sheer number of phone plans and calling cards and now video conferencing options are testimony to our efforts to remain connected to our loved ones, and the land of our birth and heart.

It is time our opinions are heard and considered—if only for the unique perspectives we bring from being exposed to various governance systems around the world. We live in 205 countries and it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. We have learned to discard that sense of entitlement that many in our old home still carry, and build lives and families and meaningful existences in all corners of the globe, while a piece of our heart remains where you live. No Indian, resident or otherwise, has the right—moral or legal—to tell another their opinion is irrelevant. If we are to raise India to new heights, and truly make her an equal, competent world player, can we really afford to discount 22 million of her people?


10 Responses to “The Non-Redundant Indian”

  1. P.K. May 6, 2014 at 2:10 am #

    Wonderfully written! I have been a passive reader of your blog for the past 3 years, and while I think all of your posts are amazing and fun to read, rarely has one come this close to expressing what I feel. I feel quite the same as what you’ve mentioned here, and when I started reading this post, I had no idea it’d resonate so strongly with me. Having been born and brought up in Bombay, and now having lived in the US for close to 7 years after having come here for grad school, I can completely understand the anguish, the pain and the passive frustration, of not being able to do anything much beyond contributing to political parties back home or sharing posts/tweets. One of the biggest bummers is the fact that NRIs aren’t allowed to exercise our constitutional right to vote via Indian consulates. I wish people back home understand that while we might have left India to seek greener pastures, and while some (or many) of us might crib about things back home, we probably feel as strongly about our country as all those “resident” folks – or in some cases, even more, as compared to a few of them. I hope things change – and soon – and to paraphrase Mr. Obama’s election campaign slogan, “yes we can”! 🙂

  2. nidhi14jan May 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    Thanks OJ..I am bookmarking this the next time some smart ass ‘patriot’ wants to slap me with the Amreekan tag!

  3. Aneela Z May 6, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    Ye sab tou theek hai but WHAT ARE YOU GETTING US?
    Send us notes not votes

  4. Aunty G May 8, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

    NRIs have a much broader perspective
    Do not take notice of any invective
    Voting should be a right
    Let us remove this blight
    And am glad the Americans have turned visa-receptive!

  5. girlfriend-who-is-finally-in california May 20, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    Love this article! As someone who has lived in india, then europe, then india, then the US, then back in India but who nowspends a lot of time in the US on work, all this global citizen talk that tries to define national identity by physical presence or boundaries drives me crazy. I wish India would let all of us vote irrespective of where we are ( both inside India – where our address proofs may be in different cities or states- and outside, where we may live in other countries but want to weigh in on and participate in India’s future). Till that happens- and I hope it does- more power to the connected, responsible and committed ‘NRI’ like you who do more for the country than many who live there without ever participating in civic engagement or comment of any sort. Well done, OJ- I’m buying you a giant cupcake to celebrate when i see you this weekend:) xoxox

  6. Orange Jammies May 20, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    P.K.: Thank you for becoming an un-passive reader. 🙂 I relate to your journey and aspirations and wonder if there isn’t a petition we could initiate to change this scenario.

    nidhi: You do that. 🙂

    Aneela: Le, aa gayi katora leke. 😛

    Aunty G: As always, you’re right
    With clear foresight
    This goes to show
    We mustn’t let go
    Of our collective might!

    girlfriend: (*Token I’m-on-a-diet protest*) Yay! Red velvet, please! 😀

  7. rohini26 May 22, 2014 at 2:00 am #

    Very comprehensively argued. The way some of these folks go on, one would think the are being asked to shell out money to listen to the opinions of NRIs. Disagree if you like, you can’t question the right to have an opinion!

  8. Orange Jammies June 3, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    rohini26: Yup, something like that. 🙂 Glad to hear from you, Ro!

  9. G May 10, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    Ask not what your country can do for you…

  10. Orange Jammies June 10, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    G: Clearly. Since change in that regard isn’t forthcoming anytime soon.

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