Disenchantment in the diaspora

What does this cohort of Indian diaspora make of contemporary politics in India and its own role in shaping things? We poked around for some answers

Rahul Gandhi addressing the Indian community at Javits Center in New York, 4 June 2023
Rahul Gandhi addressing the Indian community at Javits Center in New York, 4 June 2023

Team NHS

The Indian diaspora is possibly the largest—conservatively, about 17.5 million strong (some estimates put the number at 32 million) with about 6 million retaining their Indian passports. Inward remittances by Indians living abroad are estimated at $78.6 billion (Global Migration Report 2020). Members of the Indian diaspora are often seen as “more successful”, and as (potential) donors, wield considerable influence back home.
With their sheer numbers, they are also politically influential in their adopted countries—and are, for those reasons, wooed by politicians in those countries as well. The diaspora has produced more than a hundred elected leaders in 25 countries, including US vice president Kamala Harris and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak. What does this cohort make of contemporary politics in India and its own role in shaping things? We poked around for some answers.  


#1 Why are Indians giving up their citizenship and moving abroad?

Bilaval Banerjee*. Most Indians (including high-networth individuals (HNIs) have been frustrated with the lack of opportunities and infrastructure back home, a corrupt administration and increasing pollution. First-world economies like Canada and Australia, on the other hand, have created opportunities for the more fortunate among us.

Salil Tripathi. I have no idea about the numbers. But when someone as well-connected and as sympathetic to the current government as T.V. Mohandas Pai claims that HNI Indians are leaving India due to what he calls ‘tax terrorism’, it is worth examining if it is the case, and try to understand why this is happening.

Nidhi*. Unemployment among the youth has reached alarming proportions in India. Indian Muslims and other minorities (Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, tribal groups, LGBTQI+ etc.) and those who are well-educated and better connected are also part of this trend and they have even more urgent and compelling reasons to start a new life, far from their birthplace because they are increasingly feeling unwelcome in ‘New India’.

They are feeling harassed in their own country and do not feel free to express their dissent or grievances openly. This affects life across the board: what we eat, what we read and watch, whom we love or marry…

Bisakha Sen. Presumably for the same reasons that people have always immigrated—an imbalance between opportunities in India and those available abroad.


#2 Are Indian-Americans divided on political lines?

ST. Diasporas live in their bubbles, which have to do with religion, language, kinship, castes and backgrounds. Within that, there are self-selected bubbles, and it seems, as with Brexit in the UK or Trump in the US, the camps do not often talk to one another and feel secure in their own bubbles. Among those who have lived in the US for a long time, there is greater understanding and appreciation of civil rights; the newer arrivals often reflect the thinking of the newer, younger India.

BB. Politics across the globe has turned divisive and polarising. I doubt there are any exceptions across the world. Diaspora Indians, though, are overwhelmingly conservative and hence pro-Modi. It creates a feeling of being lost among those of us who cannot identify with the jingoistic sentiments. The biggest concern (in Canada) is that if the Khalistan movement becomes stronger again, schisms between Punjabis and other NRIs might widen.

BS. There is a great deal of angst among Indian Muslims with whom I associate. The divide between overseas Indians and NRIs really opened up when Trump was president, and he abused his powers to keep out “brown people” who he felt did not belong, and there was fear, especially among Indian Muslims, of being deported.

N. Non-resident Indians with US passports do feel a bit safer speaking their mind about the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Indian government;  green card holders or those on work visas are less likely to speak out for fear of consequences. US citizens who wish to retain their OCI status are also afraid of being blacklisted, as has happened to some prominent folks already.


#3 To what extent is the diaspora concerned about India and its policies?

BB. My biggest worry would be the way we are squandering away our advantage of being the world’s biggest democracy with the largest working-age population. If they stay unemployed or employed at the least productive levels (say, selling pakoras,) it would be the biggest failure of our governments, past and present.

Second would be the increasingly divisive politics that can lead to irreconcilable differences. The rise of the unscientific temper and a strong desire to turn the clock back to an imagined golden age, the emphasis on the vernacular in higher education institutes, increased funding for scripture-based research ideas and a preference for orthodoxy in all walks of life might lead to India being seen once again as a land of snake charmers.

ST. There are many who keep praising the ‘infrastructure improvements’ and ‘streamlined’ administration back in India, and get defensive when trains crash or projects don’t take off and even more defensive when subjects like the lynching of Muslims and beef-eaters or the civil-war-like situation in Manipur get raised. 

BS. Personally, I am concerned about the imposed ‘religious identity’ on the nation, the attempts to create a monolithic version of Hinduism, and the general right-wing resurgence and fear of the ‘other’. 

N. Those with one foot in the US and one back in the motherland are generally more concerned. This includes first-generation immigrants and those with green cards or newly arrived Indians, many of whom continue to have family and business ties with those back in India. Indian American (non- Hindu) minorities are increasingly worried about the treatment of minorities back in India and the fraying of the social fabric. They fear an India led by a ‘Hindu Ayatollah’. Conversely, there are those in the diaspora who would celebrate a Hindu Rashtra… and the notion of Akhand Bharat


#4 Reports from the UK and Australia speak of Indians critical of the government back home being hounded and intimidated. Are you aware of any such instances?

BB. I am not aware of these instances. But it would be an unforgivable act if the Indian government has supported this in any form. That would be an unfortunate step in the direction of creating a misguided despotic regime that relies on browbeating its own citizens to prove a point.

ST. I don’t know of any direct cases. But it is true that people are hesitant about saying anything critical of the government. It reminds me of how Eastern Europeans behaved during the Cold War—always worried that what they said would get reported back and there would be consequences. It is sad to see India and Indians in such a situation.

BS. I do not know of actual instances but I have worried about it, especially inflammation of emotions through social media. I have told loved ones to curb their criticisms of the Indian government on social media for fear of retaliation.

N. A friend who wrote an op-ed piece criticising Narendra Modi’s human rights record was quickly denounced in her friends’ circle in the US, with some of them even cutting off their ‘friendship’ with her.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman from Washington state and a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (which has over 100 members) wrote an open letter exhorting the Biden administration to underscore human rights issues in its meetings with Modi and the Indian delegation currently visiting DC.

Even public figures like her face intimidation on social media, with relatives and friends back home being even more vulnerable certainly.

(About the respondents: Prof. Bisakha (Pia) Sen teaches at the School of Public Health, University of Alabama, Birmingham. Salil Tripathi is a writer and journalist based in New York. BB, a recent immigrant to Canada, works for a technology MNC in Toronto. N teaches anthropology in a US University. *BB and N requested anonymity)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines