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Celebrating Indian Immigrants

Celebrating Indian Immigrants

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In an article published in 2009, Daniel Naujoks wrote, “India has one of the world’s most diverse and complex migration histories. Since the 19th century, ethnic Indians have established communities on every continent as well as on islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific and Indian oceans”.

“The composition of flows,” he wrote, “has evolved over time from mainly indentured labor in far-flung colonies to postwar labor for British industry to high-skilled professionals in North America and low-skilled workers in the Middle East. In addition, ethnic Indians in countries like Kenya and Suriname have migrated to other countries, a movement called secondary migration”.

Commendable as the current generation of Indian immigrants is in terms of its diverse achievements and ability to assimilate in host countries leading to Indians being lauded in America as a ‘model’ minority, it is important that we acknowledge the brave souls who first left Indian shores in search of a better life. Theirs are the shoulders on which successive waves of immigrant Indians have stood and thrived.

While in earlier times, a rare domestic worker may have accompanied a British colonial officer upon his being transferred from India to America or England, it was only after slavery’s abolition in 1833 that Indian emigration began in earnest. In urgent need to replace slave labor with workers to serve in sugar and rubber plantations in its colonies, a year later England started exporting Indian workers to meet its own as well as the needs of France, Holland and Portugal.  

Hired as indentured laborers, those mainly poor immigrants worked under horrendous employment conditions which included severe punishments for disobedience and ‘insufficient’ work amounting to a new form of slavery. Isolated from the local population, housed in barracks in the relocated lands, they experienced the wretchedness of apartheid. It was only in 1916 that the British finally abolished the indenture system.

During that period, only a sliver of Indian immigrants came to America, who were mainly Punjabi Sikhs who worked in agriculture in California. By 1930, their number had barely exceeded 9,000, mainly impacted by Anti-Asian legislation enacted in 1917 and 1924 which banned immigration from south and southeast Asia and imposed discriminatory rules that disqualified Asians including Indians from naturalization and land ownership rights.

The passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act drew Indians to come here in noticeable numbers. Educational exchange programs, new temporary visas for highly skilled workers, and expanded employment-based immigration channels opened pathways for skilled and educated Indian immigrants, many of whom brought family. Between 1980 to 2019, Indian immigrant population in America reportedly increased 13-fold.

Even as most Indians obtained lawful permanent residence or ‘green card’ through family reunification channels, a sizeable number did so through employment preference. Consequently, Indians became notable not just for their numeral strength but also for their skills, achievement and relative solvency. Compared with both the overall U.S. and foreign-born populations, Indian immigrants reportedly are more likely to be highly educated, work in management positions, earn higher incomes, and have lower poverty and uninsured rates.

Historically, America is generally welcoming towards immigrants, at least those who come in legally. It is especially partial to talented immigrants who deliver on their promise by working their tails off, eventually assuming positions of power in the economy and polity.

Nevertheless like other Asian Americans, we face the “bamboo ceiling” at work, occasional backlash in operating and owning businesses, and in recent years, reverse racism through affirmative action regulating college admissions.

We also encounter negative stereotyping by other ethnic groups – white, black, brown or other. Earlier, President Biden is on record making fun of Indian accent pervading 7-Eleven and similar stores. Elected Indians in Congress are either self-styled or characterized by others as the ‘samosa’ brigade, comedians often mimic our ‘desi’ English accents, and ‘spelling bee’ contests are dismissively referred to as exclusively Indian turf based on our legacy of an educational tradition that relies more on memory and regurgitation of learnt text, rather than on intelligent grasp and independent critique of imparted knowledge.

That kind of denigration may hurt but it is valuable in that it encourages us to treat other ethnic groups fairly, with respect. It also helps us to address our ingrained caste-based biases. The baggage of caste distinctions unfortunately is not easily shed after we migrate here – as highlighted by complaints in Silicon Valley registered by Indians of lesser caste against the upper caste and Brahmin segments of the tech community.

As we become more active in American politics, with many succeeding in capturing congressional seats and gubernatorial and other high-level positions in federal, state, and city administrations, we need to caution ourselves against the temptation to manipulate and fix the system. Recent acquisition of Twitter and the release of Twitter Files point to how easily Indians holding top positions in that company succumbed to external or internal pressure or simply to their own whims to moderate and suppress free speech, a sacred right and pillar of American democracy. While it is easy for liberals among us to decry Modi for his suspected suppression of India’s secular democracy and for crushing the media and a free press, let us not fail to examine our own trespasses in subverting our host country’s democracy and its fourth estate. 

Stepping into the New Year, as we celebrate our success and remarkable achievements as a minority that has reached unprecedented heights in American politics, economy, media, academia, medicine, science and other spheres, we need to candidly assess our innocent or intentional interference with the rule of law. We need a Jihadi’s resolve and a Swantra Senani’s courage to stand up for the American and Indian democracy, and to call out those Indians who are comfortable with manipulating the system and thwarting the constitution. As a “model minority” we can do no less.

(Sohoni is a CA-based published author.)

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  • This is a well-written, organized, and thought-out essay on Indian immigration causes and prospects abroad. Neera Sohoni had done a commendable job synthesizing and encapsulating key issues of Indians living abroad. One point missing in these observations is the arrogance of the economic achievers in the community. They define success and its correlation to money, which is incredibly sad.

    January 8, 2023

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