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How Indian is the Overseas Indian? The Identity Dilemma

How Indian is the Overseas Indian? The Identity Dilemma

Amit Das Gupta


Diplomatic Monologue
Amit Dasgupta


The idea of India lies at the heart of India’s plurality and diversity. This has been a matter of great inspiration and fascination across the globe. For sociologists, however, it has been aggravatingly confusing as to how a people, who are so widely different can come together as a collective.

Sociologists consider the inquiry critical to the understanding of how people and groups see or what the Germans refer to is their weltanschauung or view of the world. It determines how people think and consequently, behave not just as individuals but, more importantly, as a group. It lies at the heart of Indianness and of identity.

Diversity is not unique to India but its intensity, depth and influence certainly distinguishes it from other countries and cultures. Rabindranath Tagore celebrated India’s diversity in many of his poems and essays, including what became India’s national anthem. North to South, East to West, India’s diversity crisscrosses cuisine, attire, language, climate and even the gods we worship. It is, consequently, not uncommon for a person to first identity with being a Tamilian or a Gujarati or a Punjabi or a Bengali before identifying with Indianness. As sociologists have demonstrated, gender, caste, ethnicity, religion, language, social status are all important elements in defining who we are and thus, our identity.

It is important, therefore, to recognize that when referring to being Indian, we do not fall in the trap of believing that we are referring to a homogenous category of persons.

Group identity is usually the dominant identity and can be deeply ideological. It is essentially a shared identity where a collective comes together on the basis of a common way of seeing and behaving. It can be based on religious faith, oscillating between a very basic faith to a more extreme and fundamentalist one. While a belief in democracy can provide group identity, so can support and endorsement of systemic racism, communalism, right-wing ideology, white supremacy, nationalism, xenophobia and religious bigotry.

In Hitler’s Germany, support of the Nazi ideology was the basis of German identity. Hitler’s call to make Germany strong again lifted sagging German spirits and won public support. This extended to support for the persecution of the elderly, the infirm, the homosexuals, they gypsies and the Jews, who were seen as the contagion that had infected Germany. Their extermination was perceived as ‘the final solution’ and consequently, became an integral part of the collective belief structure that Germans subscribed to.

At the same, when Hitler’s henchmen instituted the policy of cleansing Germany, they incarcerated German Jews. They identified the predominant characteristic as Jewish rather than German. In other words, while there can be multiple identities, context determines which would be perceived as the dominant identity.

In such a situation, people are broken up into oppressors and oppressed. Those who support the ideology oppress those who do not, as also those who are the target of their ideology. The Jews were, consequently, persecuted, which culminated in the Holocaust. But there were also Germans, who did not subscribe to the Nazi ideology, who were then seen as enemies of the state and incarcerated or summarily executed. Similarly, there were Jews, known as Capos, who decided – driven by the powerful survival instinct – to side with the SS and become informers and prison guards, who squealed on fellow Jews and ruthlessly tortured them in prison and concentration camps and, as a result, won brownie points from the Gestapo. They were never looked upon as Germans but only as unscrupulous collaborators and opportunists, who were a convenience.

My wife and I met a wonderful husband-wife couple in Belgium. We became good friends. They were Iranians, who underwent extreme hardship to escape from Iran during the Shah’s regime and came to Belgium as refugees, where they finally settled. They would often meet other Iranians, who had similarly escaped the Shah’s secret police – the Savak. This common bonding created a group and shared identity.

In Egypt, we befriended an elderly painter couple, who secretly subscribed to the Baha’i faith that was banned in Egypt. On rare occasions, they would clandestinely meet other Egyptians, who were also followers of the Baha’i faith. The couple was severely diabetic and told us horrific stories of the situation in prisons and how Baha’is were treated. We learnt, much later, that they had been picked up by the Egyptian police and tortured. They died in prison. With fellow believers of the Baha’i faith, there was a shared identity but within Egypt, as a whole, they were considered as deviants to the majority belief and hence, needed to be punished.

To assume that nationality provides a collective identity or weltanschauung is, consequently, a deeply flawed perception.

Co-existence in extreme political systems of differing ways of seeing even among the people who share the same nationality or ethnicity is challenging. The dominant ideology and identity ensure that the other side lives constantly in fear of persecution and death. The military is doing precisely this in Myanmar, the Chinese have been doing it for decades vis-à-vis the Tibetans and the Uighurs, as has Islamabad with the Ahmadiyya community and others.

Survival and social acceptance can lead people to be opportunistic. Nelson Mandela had once famously said that during the apartheid regime in South Africa, Indians were not considered white enough and post-apartheid, they were not considered black enough. Indians sat on the fence refusing to oppose apartheid and yet, they did not fully side with white South Africans. They saw their survival as lying in their ability to play both sides.

Identity is, consequently, a critical influencer in social communication and interaction. How people behave is often a reflection of their identity, which determines how their particular way of seeing. It either distinguishes or aligns them with others. At the same time, as we have seen, the very definition of diversity is that it is amorphous in nature. People can think and behave different and generally do.

Misreading Identity

Identity is far more complex than we make it out to be. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between identity and choice. We can choose to be who we would like to be. This could be a willing subscription to a point of view or one driven solely by the need to survive. Many overseas Indians, for instance, distance themselves from their Indian identity so that they might blend better and quicker with the local population or with colleagues in the workplace. People change their names; Mandeep becomes Mandy. Several members of the Sikh community shave their long hair and beard. We pick up the vocabulary and accent of those around us. There is nothing wrong with this. It is the basic survival instinct and the need for social acceptance.

We mistakenly fall victim to the belief that overseas Indians are a homogenous lot. This is simply not true. First generation Indian migrants enjoy a bonding with India, which many continue to refer to as their motherland, despite having obtained citizenship of their adopted country. Their bonding is, in fact, with the city or state they came from and with their ethnicity and only loosely with an amorphous geographical entity called ‘India’. They live in a world of nostalgia and memories. Second generation Indians might accompany parents for the annual visit to Patiala, Surat, Chennai or Kolkata to meet up with grandparents and other relatives, while Dad sorts out pending family and property matters. By the time the third generation arrives, knowledge of India is drawn from coffee table books. India becomes yet another country, among a zillion others, in the must-visit-before-I-die bucket list.

To explain further, consider a few examples. Indians celebrate success of overseas Indians generously. There is great sense of pride when an overseas Indian receives recognition. This is because they see, in the success of the overseas Indian, the success of India and thus, of all Indians.

When Sundar Pichai became CEO Google, stories about him filled social, print and visual media. An Indian had made it to the top of an international and influential company. It simply did not matter that he might not be an Indian citizen.

When Naseer Hussain was made captain of the England cricket team, there were similar accolades on his elevation. Tendulkar, in his autobiography, considers Naseer as the most strategic captain he had ever encountered, as Naseer would position his fielders while anticipating the shot to follow. A Madras-born lad as captain of the England cricket team was a great honour and Indians took pride in this. Indeed, when he scored his first century against India in the summer of 1996 and won the Man of the Match award, Indian commentators praised his btting performance as being exemplar.

In the case of Kamala Harris, similarly, there was extraordinary jubilation among several Indians when it was announced that she was Biden’s running mate. They simply went overboard because, in their perception, an Indian had been catapulted to the post of Vice President of the US. Her US citizenship did not matter. Social media sites were flooded with her making and eating dosas, apparently a sign that she continued to be deeply ensconced in her southern Indian heritage. There were prayers in temples in the village her mother was born in and it is surprising that no one has yet proposed naming the town after her.

A sense of vindication and joy was felt when a large number of Indian Americans were identified by President Biden as his support staff and key personnel in the White House. Several Indian Americans had also won the elections and would be in positions of influence. Indians genuinely felt proud of this achievement.

It is important to recognize that how we see other people and how they, in turn, see themselves could often be in conflict. Indeed, misperception can lead to flawed expectations. While not unnatural, it can be the basis of misunderstandings and angst. It is here that the problem begins because the pride often results in misplaced expectations that result in great misunderstandings, including a sense of betrayal.

With Sundar Pichai, expectations atr limited to the hope that he might shift some of Google’s international operations to India, give back to his alma mater and possibly help craft an ideas revolution in India with young entrepreneurs. There would, of course, be disappointment if he were to choose China over India, even if the terms of engagement offered by Beijing were more attractive than what might be offered by New Delhi. Similarly, with Naseer Hussain, there was never any expectation that he would throw a match when England and India played but rather that his elevation, as captain of the England team, would be an inspiration to other young Indians in the UK that they, too, could have a similar aspiration.

However, in the case of Kamala Harris or other elected Indian-origin US Senators, it is completely different because we forget that they are first and foremost American citizens and that their loyalties lie to the party they belong to and the US Constitution. We, naively and erroneously to believe that overseas Indians are deeply Indian because their roots are Indian and consequently, they would be inherently understanding and aligned with policies of the government in New Delhi. In other words, that they are India champions.

Such a view, though naïve and deeply flawed, reflects the way in which we see overseas Indian. When they do not conform to our perceptions and deliver on our expectations, we feel let down.

Unless we are in a position to understand and navigate identity without exaggerated and baseless expectations, appreciation of the true potential of the overseas Indian community would never be fully appreciated or leveraged to advantage. Questioning government policies or disagreeing with them does not necessarily make the overseas Indian anti-India. It is, in fact, the first step towards greater dialogue and communication. It is also the first step towards recognizing that a collective identity needs to provide space for diversity, including dissent. Indeed, it is the very basis of the idea of India.

(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)
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