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NRIs: Non Reliable Indians

By Sunanda K Datta Ray
February 07, 2004 15:05 IST
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Remember the scene in Monsoon Wedding where the contractor quotes an exorbitant fee for a shamiana and the client retorts, "What do you think I am, an NRI?"

That perception of the Diaspora will be strengthened as, thanks to recent legislation, more and more of our brethren from abroad scatter their dollars during occasional visits to the old country.

Clearly, the Bharatiya Janata Party has a soft spot for expatriate professionals in North America.

They are the principal beneficiaries of last year's Citizenship (Amendment) Act which created a new category of persons called 'overseas citizens.'

There is unconfirmed talk now of amending the 1951 Representation of the People Act to allow postal ballot or proxy voting which would, of course, yield handsome electoral dividend for the authors.

I must confess I am not sure of the difference between 'overseas citizens' and People of Indian Origin. Some say both are NRIs or Not Reliable Indians. Be that as it may, currying up to those who can dispense hard currency is not exactly new.

Jawaharlal Nehru may have exhorted the Diaspora to identify wholeheartedly with the country of adoption, but when NRIs were first invited to invest here as part of his daughter's cautious opening up of the economy, Pranab Mukherjee included Swraj Paul, already a British subject, in the category.

It amounted to a personal exception in favour of an expatriate tycoon who had shrewdly invested in Indira Gandhi during her political exile. Now, it may be the BJP's turn to reward its overseas constituency.

Curiously, while Indians abroad make demands of the home country, other immigrants feel entitled to eat their cake and have it at the host's expense. The furore over Muslim girls in French schools is a case in point.

If parents feel so strongly about the headscarf as a religious obligation, why do they not remain in their Islamic homes where they can be as observant as they like?

They have abandoned their native country because France offers better economic opportunities, yet they object to conforming to French civilisational norms.

That also applies to Sikhs and turbans, and to the Muslims in Britain who want a holiday on Friday and a ban on the tale of The Three Little Pigs.

Indians who migrate to Britain, the US, Canada and Australia -- but mainly upper middle class Indian Americans -- should similarly accept the logic of migration. No one forced them to move.

They were not indentured labourers like the Bhojpuris shipped out to Mauritius. Famine did not drive them as it did so many Gorakhpuris to Southeast Asia.

They were not even contract labour like Tamils in the rubber plantations of the old Federated Malay States. The people we are discussing were highly educated in India, well off by Indian standards and with, in most cases, a distinct profession.

They chose to relocate in the West where living is more comfortable, professions are more lucrative and where their offspring are assured of a much higher minimum standard.

These are enviable gains, and I don't deny anyone's right to seize them with both hands. But why, then, continue to seek a toehold in the old country?

Dual citizenship is irrelevant if the reason is sentimental, as with the pioneering Congressman Dalip Singh Saund of California, who visited India for the first time in 38 years in 1957. Saund sought no favours.

If it's a business link today's NRIs want, why can't they trade or invest like other foreigners? Why should an Indian Singaporean, for instance, enjoy privileges that are not available to a Chinese or Malay Singaporean?

Ethnic discrimination jars on what we are told is a seamless global society. But if it is to be officially condoned, the government must produce sound justification that makes more than party political sense.

I would understand special treatment of Kerala Muslims who go to the Gulf or of Gujaratis in East Africa because their remittances have made a vital physical difference to their native villages.

But the government has not honoured any Gulf state or East African country with a special ambassador for NRI affairs. Nor is it courting Indians in these regions with extraordinary privileges.

New Delhi's favoured section of the Diaspora turned out to be very different from the overseas Chinese during the first Gulf War when India faced bankruptcy with enough foreign exchange to pay for only two weeks' imports.

Expatriates (mainly from the US) who had invested in India when the going was good scrambled out in haste when things became rough.

Of the $2 billion that NRIs withdrew, a sum of $1 billion was moved out between April and June 1991 alone. No wonder the Not-Reliable Indian tag dies hard.

Even if they are more generous to the party of their choice than to the country, a list of 16 selected countries whose Indian settlers are eligible for dual citizenship is as obnoxious as the US list of countries whose citizens are exempt from finger printing.

Brazil's complaint that the US favours only white Anglo-Saxon nations plus Japan, the traditional honorary white, could be replicated here as well, except that India does not have to add Japan. There are no (or hardly any) Indians there.

As for pampering the others, the government would do well to rise above party and repeat to them John Fitzgerald Kennedy's ringing words, "Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country."

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