By Digant Raj Kapoor:Â
There are over 25 million ‘Indians’ living outside of India and their legal relationship with India differs depending on their host country. The three broad categories of Indians living abroad are: Non-Resident Indian (NRI), Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), and Person of Indian Origin (PIO). NRI is a tax status; it applies to an Indian citizen who does not have to pay income tax because of the number of days spent abroad per year. An OCI is almost full-citizenship, with the exception that you cannot vote or buy agricultural land. A PIO is a glorified tourist visa that must be renewed every 15 years.Â I am an NRI and spent 18 years in Kuwait, four in the US, one in England, and have been living in Delhi since December 2013.
Indian culture varies from country to country, but what affects the culture of Indian diaspora? The list of factors is endless. Examples include proximity to India, skill and education levels, the time and conditions of migration, and the size of the Indian community in the host country. While the aspects mentioned play a significant role in shaping Indian diaspora culture, the following two play the biggest role: the host country’s laws regarding citizenship, and the culture of the host country. Legal-cultural differences give rise to varying relations between Indians and India. Given my experience, I will focus on Indians in Kuwait (which can be generalized to Indians throughout the Arabian Gulf), Indians in America, and Indians in England.
As a country of immigrants, American culture is the most inclusive of the three countries. While America has a history of discriminating against its newest immigrant community, whether it was the Irish, Italians, or the Polish, over time these communities manage to weave themselves as integral parts of America’s social fabric. Indians constitute 1% of America’s population and are concentrated in specific urban centres. The majority of Indian Americans are recent migrants. They are highly educated and highly skilled. In fact, Hindu Americans are the highest earning group in America. Indian Americans are well represented in most top-paid professions and are increasingly occupying prominent political posts as well. A major success of Indian integration to American culture was the selection of Nina Davuluri as Miss America 2014. America’s melting-pot culture and emphasis on integration ensures that all groups identify with America more strongly than they do with their native countries. Although I spent four years in the US, I identify strongly with American culture.
Having spent one year in England, I am least familiar with the intricacies of Indian British culture. Nonetheless, British culture is much more accepting than Kuwait’s, but it is not as inclusive as American culture. Britain’s policy of multiculturalism accepts the presence of different cultural societies, but integration among communities is limited. While immigrants can become British citizens, British culture does not seek unity or ‘true acceptance’, rather it allows the simultaneous existence of different cultures. Indian influence in British culture is pronounced: Chicken Tikka Masala is claimed to be a British innovation and their national dish. British Indians can be found in all income levels across all professions. Successive generations of British Indians become more and more British, but are not as well assimilated into British culture as Indian Americans are in American culture. However, both groups lose the ability to speak their native tongue by the third and fourth generation, and their ties to India diminish as well.
Indians living in Kuwait — and the rest of West Asia (colonially known as the Middle East) — face a very different situation. It is made explicitly clear to all foreigners that they are outsiders and will never belong to Kuwait. Kuwaiti culture is extremely insular. Unlike Indians born and raised in the US or the UK, growing up in Kuwait I never doubted my ‘Indian-ness.’ Regardless of how long I live(d) in Kuwait, I can never become a citizen. Nor will I get the basic right to be a permanent resident in the country where I was born and lived for over 18 years (my father migrated in 1980). Foreigners can never buy property, cannot independently own a business, and do not enjoy any basic freedoms (speech, religion, press). Expatriates can be deported at any time because Kuwait’s immigration framework requires that a local company/employer sponsor an immigrant. Thus, an immigrant is in Kuwait at the pleasure of their host. This lopsided system is the reason why so many South and East Asian migrants in Kuwait experience serious human rights violations. The situation is just as bad in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.Â While Indians in West Asia experience extreme discrimination, Indians in America are a model minority and thus largely enjoy positive stereotypes. They are attributed with several favourable and desirous traits. In Britain, Indians experience a mix of the two.
Indians living in the US and the UK are more educated, qualified, and have significantly higher incomes than Indians living in the Gulf, the majority of whom are unskilled/semi-skilled labour. Despite their lower income levels, $40 billion out of $72 billion in remittances came from the Gulf. This can partially be attributed to the fact that Gulf Indians cannot buy property or become citizens of West Asian countries, and thus send money back to India to plan for their retirements. The more explanatory factor is the demographic make-up of Gulf Indians, the majority of whom are males who are working in West Asia to support their families and relatives in India. Labourers remit a portion of their salaries every month. In the US and the UK, Indians tend to adopt a come-one-come-all policy as they become naturalized citizens of their host countries. They and their offspring are eligible to become OCIs and PIOs. Indians living in West Asia are NRIs as they will never become citizens of their host countries. Over time, Indians in the US and UK buy assets in their host country and sponsor the immigration of their relatives. Thus there is less and less need to remit money to India.
When I speak Hindi here in Delhi people are unable to tell that I’ve lived abroad. The same is not true of when I speak English. Perhaps it is my more than Indian ‘Indian-ness,’ or my more than American ‘American-ness’ that led to me being given the title @DesiPardesiBoy.
P.S. A discussion of Indians living in Latin America, Africa, Australia, and the rest of Asia is beyond the scope of this article as this piece stems from personal experience rather than research.