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 made 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 indicate a thinly-veiled resentment directed toward us NRIs. 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 $70 billion at last count, amounting to 4% of the country’s GDP. Yes, NRIs fund political parties they believe in. 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 United States, 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 not likely to be an exception in that I volunteer for no less than four 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, which successive governments have failed to provide for Indians in India. For this, we are not even given our basic right to vote from abroad, and have to 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 five-year chunks of time in the United States and then India and now the United States 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, and 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? Denying a fellow Indian the right to a voice about his/her country based on their location 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 have worked toward bringing India 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.
Our ties to India are primarily emotional. Almost all first-generation Indians still have some family there and 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, calling cards and 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 and build lives and families and meaningful existences in all corners of the globe, while a piece of our heart remains where we once lived.
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?
Dilnavaz Bamboat manages communications and social media for a Silicon Valley non-profit, is a scriptwriter for iPad applications for children, a writer and editor at IDEX (idex.org), a section editor at Ultra Violet (ultraviolet.in), a feminist blogger at Women’s Web (womensweb.in) and a founder member of India Helps (indiahelps.blogspot.com). She lives in the SF Bay Area.