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Will the Real Indian American Please Stand Up?

March 2008
Will the Real Indian American Please Stand Up?

By Rohit Chopra

It is no exaggeration to say that diasporic Indian identity—in particular, Indian-American identity—is currently a hot topic in both India and America.

The relevance of the topic for Indian Americans themselves is obvious. But in recent years the diasporic Indian—more particularly, the Indian American—has also seized the imagination of a broader sphere. Mainstream news media in India and the US, corporations as well as policymakers in both nations, cultural producers such as filmmakers and novelists, American universities, and the Indian middle classes have increasingly centered their attention on this group. The reasons for the flood of attention, as indeed the perceptions and understandings of Indian American identity, vary quite widely.

After the economic liberalization of India in1991, Indian Americans have become a valuable source of foreign exchange and, in many ways, model global citizens, at ease in both cultures and a symbol of the India Shining story. Needless to say, the Indian state tends to picture the affluent professional as the perfect NRI (Non Resident Indian), not the illegal Indian immigrant or blue-collar worker struggling to make ends meet. For the Indian film industry, the overseas Indian population constitutes an important market. This translates into an incentive to produce stories with NRIs as central characters. They are often shown as highly successful individuals who have managed to preserve their Indian values.

Given the aspirations of large numbers of the Indian middle classes to either migrate to the US or to enjoy the rewards and opportunities of globalization, these films also find ready and eager audiences within India. This is in stark contrast to an earlier view of expatriates held by the Indian state and society, which saw them, at best, as indifferent to the cause of the Indian nation, and at worst, as unpatriotic and treacherous.

For American groups and organizations, depending on their political orientation and personal beliefs, Indians are either a valuable source of technological skills, a pool of customer service providers who can help cut business costs, or a parasitic drain on the national system depriving American citizens of jobs. American universities are setting their sights on India as a destination for ‘study abroad’ programs and for other academic partnerships, even as they encourage greater numbers of students from India. Indian characters pop up with greater frequency in American television series, suggesting a move away from limited stereotypical portrayals. In the world of Indian fiction in English, diasporic writers have been especially prominent since the era of Rushdie. That trend shows no signs of abating, even though large numbers of resident Indians are also making forays into literature. In no small measure, postcolonial Indian fiction has contributed to the notion of the expatriate as someone who crosses cultural barriers and boundaries and resides in multiple homes, both literally and symbolically.

What all of this suggests is that there are many notions of diasporic and Indian-American identity that do not always fit into a single, larger picture like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

And, yet, it seems that many Indian Americans, as indeed many Indians and Americans, are constantly trying to pigeonhole diasporic identities into a very narrow definition. A few examples: Indians and Indian Americans who insist on a simplistic and often ultra-conservative notion of ‘Indian values’ as the bedrock of Indian identity; diasporic Hindu nationalists who insist, against the grain of all historical evidence and sociological reality, that authentic Indian culture is synonymous with Hindu culture; resident Indians who criticize NRIs as rootless exiles wallowing in nostalgia, or see them as mouthpieces for some Western agenda; NRIs who romanticize their situation as combining the best of both worlds; NRIs who forever lament the homeland they left behind (mostly voluntarily!); Indians or Americans who see India primarily as a spiritual entity; Westerners who hold stereotypes of India as a land of cows, snakes, tigers, and elephants, juxtaposed with a society defined by impoverished masses and resplendent Maharajahs with caste and gender inequality thrown in for good measure.

My point here may appear somewhat counter-intuitive. When defined in narrow terms, both positive and negative definitions of Indian-American or diasporic identity are dangerous—because they inevitably exclude, ignore, or refuse to count some forms of Indian-American as well as Indian identity as valid. Adherents of the thriving Hindu nationalist movement in the US, for instance, refuse to accept that diasporic Indian Muslims and Christians possess an equal right to speak for Indian society and civilization. The image of the affluent technology professional as the typical NRI shuts out the problems faced by immigrant Indians such as taxi drivers and others who are not similarly privileged. The Indian who dismisses the NRI as a culture-deprived vagrant ignores the fact that NRIs might be playing a key role in keeping some aspect of Indian cultural alive. The nostalgic and sentimental idea of the homeland cultivated by some NRIs masks some of the harsh and ugly realities of social relations in India.

To a certain extent, especially in an overseas milieu, one can understand the desire to offer a simple and straightforward definition of Indian or Indian-American identity. It may be difficult and impractical to include all the forms of regional, religious, linguistic, pan-national, and trans-national identification that fall under the umbrella of these labels.

It is not surprising, then, that Indian-American identity, for all its internal diversity, has been gradually reshaped in the American context as a type or category of ethnic identity. But it is possible to combine this broad notion of Indian Americans as an ethnicity, with an emphasis on the diversity of political opinion, religious belief or commitment (or absence thereof), linguistic and cultural background, occupations, and other factors that make up the Indian-American population.

That diversity is what is arguably most precious about an Indian civilizational ethos. And what could be more Indian, American, and more Indian-American, than a model of identity that does not exclude anyone but welcomes all?

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